TOKYO, Japan — In the coming days, a fleet of Japanese ships will return from the Antarctic Ocean laden with a controversial cargo of whale meat — the spoils of a four-month “lethal research” expedition condemned by conservationists and even Japan’s closest trading partners and allies.
Foreign media criticism and harassment from activists have frustrated the fleet in recent years, but it hasn’t stopped it from conducting what Japan believes is its inalienable right to maintain a 400-year-old tradition of killing and eating whales.
Japan’s persistence in the face of international opposition is a mystery to many. Diplomatically and financially it has nothing to gain by exploiting a loophole in the International Whaling Commission’s 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling that allows it to kill about 1,000 whales every winter.
It is clear that the fleet is not satisfying a popular appetite for whale meat back home. While some older Japanese look back fondly on a time, from the late 1940s to the early 1960s, when the meat was served in school lunches, most younger people wonder why anyone would prefer the chewy, oily flesh over chicken, pork and beef.
According to a 2008 survey by the Nippon Research Center, 95 percent of Japanese either consume whale meat very rarely or never at all. Annual per capita consumption now amounts to no more than four slices of sashimi a year.
The result is a growing stockpile that has prompted the reintroduction of whale meat into the school lunch system in several parts of Japan.
While industry supporters talk of a national culture of whale consumption, the meat is eaten regularly only in a handful of coastal villages with strong historical links to the industry.
These communities, including Wada, on Japan’s Pacific coast, are permitted by the agriculture ministry to catch a certain number of smaller whales not covered by the IWC ban, despite fears over high levels of dioxin, mercury and other toxins.
The catch is of limited economic value to local people, but forms a pivotal part of a campaign to save traditions under attack from what some call Western culinary imperialism.
In fact, large-scale whaling in distant oceans began only after the U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who led the postwar occupation of Japan, identified whale meat as a cheap source of protein for an impoverished and hungry nation.
“Whale meat saved Japanese people from starvation during the food shortage after the war,” said Konomu Kubo of the Japan Whaling Association. “We believe whale meat was a source of vitality and enabled Japan to achieve high economic growth after the war and become a major economic power.”
Jun Morikawa, a professor at Rakuno Gakuen University in Sapporo, is one of few Japanese to have openly challenged the belief that whale consumption is an important part of the country’s cultural heritage.
Instead, he points to collusion between Fisheries Agency bureaucrats and politicians representing coastal communities with a vested interest in promoting a loss-making industry that also comes with enormous environmental and diplomatic costs.
“They are like a fishing industry tribe,” said Morikawa, author of "Whaling in Japan: Power Politics and Diplomacy." "Japan’s whaling policy is determined, executed and assessed by a small governing elite. The whaling industry is not financially viable. Its job is to spread pro-whaling propaganda and manipulate public opinion so that people think that eating whale meat is part of our national culture."
As the IWC prepares to meet in Morocco in June, Japan, which has never come close to the two-thirds majority it needs to overturn the commercial whaling ban, is looking for new ways to keep its controversial fleet active.
Among the proposals now under discussion is one that would allow Japan, Norway and Iceland to conduct limited commercial whaling in return for a huge cut in the size of the current “scientific” catch.
Pro-whaling officials blame the moratorium for the artificially high prices that prevent whale meat from re-establishing itself as a key part of the Japanese diet.
“Although current supply of whale meat is just 2 percent of what it was 40 years ago our unique dietary patterns and diet culture are still ingrained in various regions,” said Kubo.
“It is not true that young people don’t eat whale meat because they do not like its taste. When we organize special classes at schools, most of the children, who ate whale meat for the first time, said they liked it.”
Despite the damage whaling inflicts on Japan’s international standing, its fate could be determined not by backroom deals at the IWC but by shifting attitudes at home.
Morikawa hopes that Japan’s progressive government, which took office last autumn, will “consider ending research whaling and at the very least promote a public debate on the issue.”
It is a debate he believes the power brokers in the whaling industry would lose: “Young Japanese people would rather watch whales than eat them. They’re more interested in protecting wildlife than in destroying it.”