Mitsuhiko Maeda spent 40 years hunting whales off northern Japan, as a navigator and spotter. Today, at 73, he still spends his days with binoculars — on a lookout post on a vessel, scanning the Sea of Okhotsk for telltale spouts.
But his boat has no harpoons. Instead, he takes tourists armed only with cameras and phones.
“I don’t think Japanese people really know very much about whales,” he said. “I want people to come with us and learn about all the different species.”
In Japan, whale watching is steadily growing in popularity, while whale meat consumption is slowly falling in a nation with a long tradition of hunting whales.
The two industries coexist for now, but the trends point in only one direction, said Patrick Ramage, director of marine conservation at the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
“One has to look beyond the Western caricature of Japan as a nation just committed to killing whales,” he said. “Whale watching is much smaller-scale than what you are seeing in New Zealand, Australia or here in the U.S., but there is a steady migration to this more sustainable and, we would argue, ultimately more economically beneficial use of whales.”
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose constituency includes the whaling city of Shimonoseki, may be the most pro-whaling leader in Japan’s modern history.
But in efforts to boost tourism — and spread its benefits outside the main centers of Tokyo and Kyoto — even Abe’s government is promoting “eco-tourism using local resources such as birdwatching and whale watching.”
Since the late 1980s, trips to watch humpback, sperm whales and orca have sprung up all around Japan. The number of people taking such trips more than doubled to nearly 234,000 in 2016, from 103,000 in 2008, according to IFAW data.
‘I’ll probably order it’
There was plenty of enthusiasm on a whale-watching trip off northern Japan, but a mix of opinions about eating whale meat.
Akihito Koseki, a 28-year-old doctor, expressed amazement at the power of a sperm whale as it flicked its huge fluke and dived into the ocean, but he said the experience wouldn’t change his eating habits.
“There are those who protest against eating whale meat, but we eat horsemeat and still go riding on a horse,” he said. “If I see whale meat on the menu, I’ll probably order it.”
Shingo Sakuta, 49, on a corporate trip with his construction company, said he had been thinking about the issue while on the whale-watch trip. He decided he’d be more hesitant to eat whale meat now.
He didn’t really like it, anyway.
That view was shared by 57-year-old Takato Watanabe. She said she would be even less inclined to eat whale meat after seeing the animals in the wild. “Still, if someone cooks it for me, I’d eat it, because it would be rude not to,” she added.
That is how most people in Japan feel about whale meat — indifferent — aside from a general sense that Western criticism of the country’s eating habits is hypocritical, given the cruelty involved in factory farming.
As Japan struggled to get back on its feet after World War II, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, head of the Allied occupying forces, encouraged people to eat whales as a vital source of protein. By 1962, Japan’s annual consumption of whale meat had grown to 233,000 metric tons, a quarter of its total meat consumption.
But as whales became scarcer, tastes changed, and a global moratorium on commercial whaling was imposed in 1986. Whale meat consumption in Japan plummeted to just 3,000 tons in 2018, or less than an ounce per person per year, according to Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.
Japan’s pro-whaling lobby is still powerful, though. The country withdrew from the International Whaling Commission this year, ended its Antarctic whale hunt and resumed commercial whaling in the waters of its own exclusive economic zone.
Meat from nearby waters can be eaten fresh rather than frozen. That is a potential boon, the whaling industry predicts, in a country that takes the freshness of its food very seriously.
Government-backed whaling groups have staged promotional events around Japan and take part in food fairs and festivals, where visitors are invited to try whale meat or enjoy a cup of whale soup. A website has been set up to increase awareness of whale food culture, while a Norwegian company is even promoting a range of “modern” Mexican, Chinese and Italian recipes using whale meat.
Today, elderly Japanese people might have a sense of nostalgia about the fried whale meat they used to eat for their school lunches. But the younger generation eat very little whale meat, and the industry depends on government subsidies to stay afloat.
‘We all live side by side’
Maeda, the former whale hunter, runs his whale-watch trips out of Abashiri in Japan’s far north, ironically a city whose history is deeply bound up in whale hunting.
In the boom years of the 1950s, there were seven whaling companies in Abashiri. People would rush to the “whale beach” when they heard the distinctive steam whistle from a whaling boat coming home, ready for the huge job of processing the massive animals. But as the price of whale meat dropped, the industry largely moved away.
Two small companies are still based here, and there is still some small-scale whaling in local waters. A fancy restaurant serves whale meat, and bloody cuts of Antarctic minke whale, left over from the hunt there, are on sale in a supermarket. The city offers whale meat in school lunches once a year.
But whaling feels incidental to a city more focused on other marine life in the rich waters of the Sea of Okhotsk, which sits between Japan and Russia. Government data shows revenue from whaling contributed just 0.1 percent of Abashiri’s fisheries’ production in 2017.
“We have a heritage of traditional whaling,” said Abashiri’s mayor, Yoichi Mizutani. “But Japanese people don’t eat very much whale meat. It’s hard to predict where whaling will go from here, but it may be hard to sustain commercial whaling without demand.”
The nearby town of Rausu has already made its choice. Whale-watching trips are booming, with participants more than doubling to 25,000 people in 2018 from 2011. You won’t find whale meat for sale in the town’s restaurants or supermarkets. A local cafe, run by a woman who worked in the whale-watching industry in New Zealand, feels like a haven for lovers of the animals.
Yet for the captains of the boats used for whale-watching trips, there is a mutual respect for the whalers. Maeda’s father was a harpooner, his brother also a whaler, and he stresses that it’s important for the two industries to be “compatible,” for whaling to be sustainable but not vanish entirely.
In Rausu, former fisherman Masato Hasegawa runs whale-watching trips with his sons.
There was a “big quarrel” a few years back, he said, when a whale-watching boat witnessed a whale being killed — much to the discomfort of both sides. But since then, they have patched up relations and even tip each other off when they see species that the other might be interested in catching or watching.
“We have a good relationship with the whalers. We all live side by side,” he said. “My family has run a fishing business for four generations, and I know how hard it is. Both of us understand each other’s hardship.”
Akiko Kashiwagi contributed to this report. Story editing by Brian Murphy. Photo editing by Olivier Laurent. Designed by Alla Dreyvitser.