A minke whale onboard the Nisshin Maru, part of the Japanese whaling fleet, at sea in Antarctic waters on September 10, 2018. Photo: AFP/Sea Shepherd Global/Glenn Lockitch
A minke whale onboard the Nisshin Maru, part of the Japanese whaling fleet, at sea in Antarctic waters on September 10, 2018. Photo: AFP/Sea Shepherd Global/Glenn Lockitch

For aficionados of whale meat, the Kujiraya (whale) restaurant in fashionable Shibuya, the last original whale meat restaurant in Tokyo, is a kind of Mecca.

Every kind of whale meat imaginable – whale bacon, whale sukiyaki, whale heart, fried whale – is on the menu.

People from all walks of life patronize the eatery, the restaurant owner told Asia Times. The most popular dish, the restaurant says, is, perhaps inevitably, whale sashimi.

In addition to its qualities as a cuisine, there is the added titillation of eating something that people are actually forbidden to eat in probably 99% of the world’s restaurants. Many Kujiraya customers are foreign tourists drawn to sample something unattainable elsewhere.

“I felt like a sinner, moving from being a whale lover – of the living kind. But I couldn’t resist trying whale meat – the cooked kind,” wrote one of Kujiraya’s online reviewers.

Most of the whale meat in Japan is not consumed in such elegant surroundings, however. A large portion of the dead whales show up in school lunch programs.

The whale meat that shows up on the Kujiraya’s menu undoubtedly came from one of the whales Japanese whalers were allowed to hunt and kill during the last season as part of what Japan insists is a purely scientific exercise and what the rest of the world thinks is only a cover for commercial fishing.

Proposal harpooned in Brazil

In the glare of the global media spotlight, these issues were debated again at the International Commission on Whaling’s biannual meeting this year at a resort on the coast of Brazil.

The Japanese delegation proposed an end to the worldwide ban on harvesting whales, saying it can no longer be justified on preservation concerns. “The science is clear; there are certain species of whale whose population is healthy enough to be harvested sustainably,” according to the proposal reported by Reuters.

The wider world disagreed. Tokyo’s motion was defeated by a 41-27 vote. Clearly dejected, the Japanese delegation hinted that it might leave the commission.

Even if Japan could not get enough votes to lift the ban, it had hoped to make some procedural changes so it is no longer treated like a pariah nation.

“Our challenge at this meeting is whether we can bridge the two different ideas or find a situation where we can agree to disagree,” Joji Morishita, Japan’s delegate and the chairman of this year’s commission, said prior to the vote.

According to Morishita, the objectives of the scientific whale hunts are to obtain data on migration patterns, reproductive rates and age spread among the Minke whale population. The Japanese maintain that the age data can only be obtained through “lethal sampling” – in plain English, killing whales. It has suggested that non-lethal means may be developed in time.

In April 2014, Japan suspended Antarctic whaling after the International Court of Justice ruled that the annual Japanese hunt was not for scientific research but was a cover for commercial whaling. Indeed. After being examined, the meat from whale carcasses are then sold to schools in Japan and a few restaurants like the Kujiraya.

The Japanese whalers modified their program to meet the complaints, cutting the annual catch from 800 to 333 whales and then resubmitted it, said Morishita. It resumed scientific hunting after agreeing to sit out the 2015-2016 season and reducing the number of whales killed.

A big catch, but a tiny sector

The industry is a whale-sized blot on the face of the national brand. It generates almost fanatical animosity toward Japan, particularly in Australia, a country that is otherwise reasonably well disposed toward the island nation.

Yet compared with Japan’s many giant, world-class industries, whaling is almost ridiculously inconsequential is terms of size. Only about 1,000 people work in the sector, manning its six aging whaling vessels.

The Tsukiji market in Tokyo, world famous for its daily blue fin tuna auctions and its countless stalls selling every kind of seafood under the sun, has only two stalls retailing whale meat. Whale meat can also be purchased online, however.

Overall, consumption is so low in today’s Japan that whaling could not survive without hefty government subsidies.

Yet the industry is not going gently into the night. It wants to replace its 30-year-old mother ship, the Nisshin Maru, where whole bodies are taken from the sea and gutted, with a more modern vessel. This is a sign that whalers – despite the recent setback of Friday’s vote – anticipate a time when the ban on commercial whaling will be lifted.

So what is keeping the Japanese whaling alive?

Hefty supporters, protein memories

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe protested the ICJ ruling and called for a resumption of whaling. It is personal with Abe: His own parliamentary constituency in western Yamaguchi Prefecture has long ties to whaling.

Moreover, supporting whaling is a common position held among members of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party.

Arguably, however, the father of Japanese whaling was not Japanese: It was US General Douglas MacArthur. Japan’s occupation leader ordered two tankers be converted to whaling mother ships to help provide a source of protein.

This explains why Tokyo’s Kujiraya restaurant does not boast an ancient linage: The restaurant opened its doors in 1950, during the MacArthur years.

Much of the catch in those days was used to beef up school lunches. By helping to raise a generation of strong and healthy Japanese, whaling, it could be argued, contributed to the country’s remarkable post-war recovery.

But these days Japanese get their protein mostly from local and imported beef and don’t need to continue eating whale meat – something that opponents of whaling are eager to point out.

Still, whaling and the culture around it has not only powerful political support. It also seems to exert a powerful emotive hold over many Japanese minds. Some schools put whale meat in school lunches, in part, so children can learn about “traditional” food culture.

And here is an added plus – whale is cheap. The average price for a meal for two at the vaunted Kurijara – exclusive of drinks – comes to a mere 1,800 yen. That is less than US$16, a drop in the ocean by Tokyo’s culinary standards.

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