Tastes Like Chicken


‘Warning! Warning!’ shrieked the captain of the Nisshin Maru – sounding like the robot from the 1960s TV series Lost in Space – as he collided with the Greenpeace boat in the Antarctic Ocean earlier this month.

As we watched the images on TV, I confessed to my partner that I used to eat whale meat often. She didn’t seem as surprised as when I told her about eating horse.

Thanks to Scratch

I grew up eating whale meat. I remember eating a lot of it in the lunches prepared at my primary school. It was rather stringy, tough stuff. I am not sure if I liked it, but we were told that it was a part of our compulsory education to eat up.

When I got to high school, lunch was no longer supplied and my mother prepared it for me. She usually packed my lunch box with rice, pickles, and fish or grilled whale meat. I don’t know if it was the quality of the meat she got or her cooking method but her grilled whale with soy sauce, mirin and ginger was delicious. She sometimes deep-fried the marinated meat for dinner as well.

Since we lived miles away from the nearest ocean (I did not see the sea until I was 12), we never had sashimi whale, but we had plenty of the tinned stuff. In my late teens in the 1970s, when going out camping in the bush with my mates, we would take a bag of rice and tins of whale meat. The tinned stuff was okay, not marvelous, but handy. It was like tinned tuna today – not as good as the fresh stuff, but cheap and ubiquitous.

Whale meat was certainly plentiful in those days. In the mid-1960s well over 200,000 tons of whale meat was consumed every year in Japan. The country’s three main operators had a fleet of 86 catching boats, 14 freezer equipped freighters,?seven fuel tankers and 36 cargo boats between them – with a combined crew of 12,000. The ‘economic miracle’ boom of the 1960s and early 1970s was, you might say, fuelled by whales.

Only a couple of decades before, Japan had been devastated and starving. In 1946, the defeated nation looked on with restored pride and anticipation as its whaling fleet departed to the Antarctic. The catch they brought back filled many hungry stomachs. Nearly half of Japan’s meat intake in the latter half of the 1940s and the 1950s was whale.

In those days, Shimonoseki – a town with a population of 250,000 at the western tip of Honshu, Japan’s main island – was one of many thriving whaling ports. The city’s main thoroughfare is still named after Taiyo Fishery (now known as Maruha), one of the three main whaling operators. The locals used to be able to look up at a huge neon sign of a whale that glowed on the roof of Taiyo’s headquarters. Business must have been booming, as the company even owned its own professional baseball team, aptly called the Taiyo Whales. (The team was later relocated, as was the parent company, but it remained the Whales until 1992, when it became the more cutesy Baystars.)

Thanks to Bill Leak at The Australian

Shimonoseki may not be as thriving now, but it is the only working whaling port left in the country – the home of Japan’s Antarctic ‘research’ whaling fleet. Naturally, it hosted the International Whaling Commission (IWC) conference in 2002.

Despite the claims made by the pro-whaling lobby and the Japanese Government’s Fishery Agency, Japan’s whaling tradition does not go back far. Of course, coastal whaling may go back some centuries in parts of the country, but modern whaling was introduced only a century or so ago, and the Japanese first arrived in Antarctic waters in 1934.

Whale did not last long as the national tucker because the efficient, modern method of industrial mass-culling almost wiped the animals out. All the other whaling nations withdrew from Antarctic waters as whaling was no longer commercially viable. Japan’s three whaling companies, Maruha, Nissui and Kyokuyo, were also forced to shed their whaling operations and these were merged into one company, Kyodo Hogei, in 1976.

In 1987, Japan finally abandoned commercial whaling and the company became Kyodo Senpaku, which owns and operates the country’s only whaling fleet and carries out so-called ‘research’ whaling under contract from a semi-government body called the Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR), also set up in 1987.

Under this ‘research’ scheme, the Government’s Fishery Agency sanctions the research and pays out about one billion yen a year in subsidies. The ICR does the research, while Kyodo Senpaku does the actual whaling. Apart from the taxpayer contribution through the Fishery Agency, this ‘research’ operation is mostly financed by the sale of whale meat. ‘By-products of research’ as they are called, are sold in ordinary sushi bars, specialist restaurants, or at local supermarkets, in slabs, slices and thin rashers like bacon. It is estimated that in 2000, ICR sold some 2500 tons of ‘by products’ and raised four billion yen.

ICR also releases some 300 tonnes of whale meat cheaply to local government agencies to promote the culture of whale eating, but some of this meat ends up as a source of corruption. In 2004, questions were asked in national parliament about the sale of 17 tonnes of whale meat to Ashibemachi near Nagaski in the southern island of Kyushu, the previous year. The mayor of this town of 9000 people requested 35 tonnes and got 17 tonnes – more than 5 per cent of the annual amount set aside for promotion. He got the whale meat, but the payment of 53 million yen was made by a local businessman, not by the town. Had this not been exposed, the businessman would have made more than 110 million yen in profit, some of which would have been donated to a local MP whose job was to make sure it all ran smoothly.

Despite the government’s attempt to expand whale-eating culture, there seems to be a glut. According to the 1999 market research conducted by the English firm MORIA (Market & Opinion Research International) at the request of Greenpeace and the International Fund for Animal Welfare, only 1 per cent of respondents ate whale meat and they only ate it once a month or less. This is not the ‘national staple’ the whaling lobby wishes to portray.

Japan’s consumers may be also well aware that big marine creatures like whales tend to accumulate more pollutants like PCB, mercury and DDT from the environment. (link: safetyfirst website).

I found some of the responses in Japan to the collision between the Greenpeace boat and the Japanese whaling ship earlier this month very alarming. Greenpeace was branded the agent of ‘Western’ imperialism, environmental terrorists and pirates. Although I am not necessarily a supporter of Greenpeace, the denunciation of them as foreign by the same people who munch happily on McDonald’s and KFC makes me cringe. Japan has 3700 McDonald’s outlets – more than any other country outside the US – yet they first arrived in 1971.

These confused wannabe nationalists forget that eating meat was not really a tradition in Japan until some 150 years ago, and that the kind of whaling that is carried out now is not the tradit
ional coastal style, but a modern method developed in Norway.

Real nationalists are those who put the national interest, and the health of the population, first. These wannabes should realise that their arrogant and childish behaviour over whaling, including rampant vote buying at the IWC, only damages Japan’s status in the international community.

The world’s second richest nation should not be permitted to behave like a starving one. If Japan wants to earn a voice in the international community and a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, it should behave in a more mature manner.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.