I’ll Have the Whale, Please: Japan’s Unsustainable Whale Hunts

In the U.S. “whale meat” can cost you a lifetime in jail, while in Japan it costs you about $10 for a meal—and your kids are served it at school.

David Guttenfelder/AP

In the United States, serving whale meat can cost you decades of jail-time as one sushi chef in Los Angeles recently learned; in Japan it costs you about $10, for the whale tempura special (¥980). If you go to one of Tokyo’s most famous whale specialty restaurants, Ganso Kujiraya (The Original Whale Seller), on a weekday, you can sometimes have the raw whale sashimi set for the same price; it comes with fresh ginger, soy sauce, salad, a steaming bowl of rice, and soup. While you’re there, you can pick up some whale bacon too as a souvenir. And if you’re a kid enrolled in the Japanese public schools, your chances of getting to eat it in 2013 are twice as good as they were last year.

Japan’s Fisheries Agency said that the state-funded Japan Institute of Cetacean Research (JICR) would sell whale meat acquired for its “scientific research” directly to individuals and restaurants this year. The agency also plans to double its distribution of whale meat to school-lunch programs, despite the high level of mercury contained in whale meat, by reducing prices. The Japan Institute of Cetacean Research is under the supervision of the Fisheries Agency and most of its funding comes from the Japanese government.

According to the Mainichi News, about 100 metric tons of whale meat is served in school lunches per year in Japan. The Ministry of Education says that it encourages schools to serve local specialities to their students, as long as the dishes meet the national nutritional standards set per meal for children. In Tokyo, the Higashi-machi and Shibaura elementary school in the Minato ward served whale meat this January as part of their traditional meals menu. “We do not serve whale meat just because it is cheaper than pork or beef, but to teach children about the kind of school lunches Japan had in the past,” a spokeswoman from Higashi-machi elementary school said. “Our whale meat lunch is one of our most popular menu items,” she added. The Minato-ward Board of Education insisted that schools do not serve whale meat every day to its students. Wakayama and Nagasaki prefectures serve more whale meat than other regions in Japan, partly because both prefectures still have a whaling industry, which is heavily subsidized by the government.

The Whale Meat Subsidy

Until recently, whale meat caught for research was sold to a limited number of meat traders. Under a loophole in the moratorium on whaling, Japan is allowed to keep and sell the whale meat obtained from their “research” into the whale populations. Money made from the whale product sales is then used to support whale research the next year.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Fisheries, said that after 1986, the year when a global moratorium on whaling was established by the IWC (International Whaling Commission), the Ministry of Fisheries has been pouring approximately 700 million yen (about $7.57 million) into whale research per year. In 2011, the Ministry of Fisheries raised public outcry, when it snuck a 2.3 billion yen (about $24.89 million) subsidy into the supplementary budget designed to revitalize the tsunami-devastated Tohoku region—money that was actually earmarked for whaling. Of that, 1.8 billion yen went to research whaling and the rest was set aside to charter a boat to monitor and possibly block the activities of anti-whaling activists. However, even the Japanese press considered this request to be a “highly suspicious” use of funds that were supposed to aid victims of the earthquake and tsunami that devastated northern Japan on March 11, 2011.

In response to The Daily Beast inquires about the use of these funds, the Ministry of Fisheries replied, “In the city of Ishinomaki, which was partly destroyed by the tsunami on 3/11, the whaling industry, is a major part of the economy and therefore we wanted to revitalize the business of the fishermen there.” However, the Ministry of Fisheries admitted, “It was an inappropriate request, despite the reasons given to justify it.”

The City Hall of Ishinomaki responded to the Ministry of Fisheries explanations as follows: “Processing whale meat is not a major industry in our city, not even a significant percentage of our major businesses, and the tidal wave wiped out the few facilities that could process it.”

The Ministry of Fisheries, in replies to other Japanese media, did point out that some of the whalers who participate in the annual Antarctic expedition live near Ishinomaki and keeping them employed indirectly helps the city.

The “High Price” of Whale?

In fact, whale meat has cost the city a large amount money. In 2010, the city sold raw whale meat directly to the people of Oshika County; 160 people got food poisoning and the city had to pay them a total of nearly 4 million yen in damages. In May of 2011, when the Japan Small-Type Whaling Association (Tokyo) sent over 280 kilos of raw whale meat to the shelters at Ishinomaki, the city refused the shipment, citing concerns of food poisoning. According to local reporters, while there is a fondness for whale meat in the area, “No one understands why that money was spent on whaling when it should have been spent rebuilding our city or helping other people in Tohoku (Northern Japan).”

In postwar Japan, whale meat was a source of the nation’s protein, and the Japanese people were reasonably fond of it in times of famine. Americans and other Western nations practiced whaling for oil, resulting in the global population of whales declining until an International Whaling Commission was established in 1946, by 15 whaling nations. The global moratorium on commercial whaling came into effect in 1987 and since then Japan’s Institute of Cetacean Research continued its whaling activity in the name of “scientific research," which is permitted by the IWC.

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The Ministry of Fisheries said that Japan has to continue its whaling program because it needs to prove to the other nations that there is enough of a whale population worldwide to re-open commercial whaling. “We do not want to make profit out of research whaling, but we do not want the meat obtained to go to waste either. That’s why whale meat is sold in order to raise the funds to sustain the research each year,” he explained. In Japanese language materials, the JICR justifies research whaling as follows: “The world’s population is expected to increase to more than nine billion by the mid-21st century. Food produced on land is not sufficient to feed that many people … our research will eventually lead to the management and utilization not only of whales, but all marine living resources ... and solve future food shortages.”

According to a Japanese political activist, Mr. Shun, who belongs to a pro-whaling group, the existence of the whale- and dolphin-meat industry in Japan is a matter of supply and demand. “This industry exists in Japan for ages and still does, because there is a demand for it. Japan is a democracy, people have the right to chose what they wish to eat, whether it is healthy or not, the decision should be made on the marketplace. ”Polls in the past conducted by Japanese mainstream media about whaling yielded results in which more than 75 percent of the respondents supported the reopening of commercial whaling.

Support for Whaling Declines While Problems Increase

However, in late November last year (2012), The International Fund for Animal Welfare in conjunction with the Nihon Research Center announced the results of a poll of 1,200 Japanese people, in which only 27% of the respondents supporting whaling, and 11% opposed it. The younger the respondent, the lower the support for whaling. Only 2.6% of the respondents between 15 and 19 supported whaling. 88% of the respondents said they did not purchase whale meat in the past year.

The poll results came out after the first demonstration in Japan organized by Japanese citizens on November 24, last year, to protest the slaughter of sea mammals. A group of about 70 activists, 40 of whom were Japanese, staged a 90-minute rally in Tokyo against Japan’s practice of hunting dolphins for profit and killing whales under the guise of research. The protesters claim these practices are inhumane, unhealthy, and a waste of taxpayers' money. Right-wing activists, who were allegedly paid by the whaling industry, organized a counter demonstration saying that, “Killing the practice of whale hunting is the same as killing the Japanese people.”

Mr. Nagai, one of the demonstration organizers said, “Research whaling and dolphin killing are bad for Japan’s image. The meat piles up in storehouses because no one wants to eat it. It’s time to stop this practice, which benefits no one. It is a problem that has to be solved between the government and the citizens of Japan.”

Whale: “Health Food”?

Whale products are widely sold in Japan and it can cause problems when US firms inadvertently get involved in the business. In February of 2012, a report revealed that Amazon Japan, a subsidiary of Amazon Inc., was selling large numbers of cetacean food products. Activists called on the company and its CEO Jeff Bezos to implement an immediate and permanent global ban. The U.K. based Environmental Investigation Agency purchased eight whale products from Amazon Japan in 2011, including canned whale meat, whale jerky, whale bacon, and whale stew. Analysis revealed six of them to have mercury levels exceeding the Japanese national limit for mercury in seafood of 0.4 parts per million (ppm) and one had a staggering level of 20 ppm, about 50 times the safety limit.

Sakae Hemmi from the NGO ELSA Nature Conservancy (エルザ自然保護の会), notes, “Whale meat is very high in mercury levels. Dolphin meat, sometimes sold as whale meat, has been put on the market without any clear labels warning about the mercury contamination. The information about whale and dolphin mercury contamination has been posted on the website of the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare.” Although the information is posted on the ministry's home page, the majority of the Japanese people are unaware of the risks, a survey conducted by ELSA in 2008 revealed.

Ironically, while two Japanese government agencies are promoting the consumption of mercury-contaminated whale meat, Japan’s Environment Ministry has long been supporting the “The Minamata Convention on Mercury” which calls for new controls and reductions of the use of mercury worldwide, to “prevent it from polluting the environment and damaging the health of the world’s population.” More than 140 countries agreed to follow the convention after U.N. talks in Geneva in January. The Minamata Convention takes its name from the Minamata area of Japan; in the 1950s, industrial pollution by the Japanese corporation Chisso there resulted in thousands of people becoming ill and suffering brain damage, due largely to mercury poisoning.

The Ministry of Education says that the risks of mercury poisoning from eating whale are low if the meat is prepared properly, and that the mercury levels of the meat are checked before being delivered to the schools. And certainly it does seem like eating it once or twice a year probably has little impact on the health of an individual. Fans of whale meat will tell you that it’s very low calorie and high in protein. One hundred grams of whale meat has only 106 calories as opposed to 313 for the equivalent of beef. But the perpetuation of the industry via tax dollars increasingly has a negative impact on Japan’s image both inside and outside the country. Whether you believe that whales—because of their low numbers and high intelligence deserve special treatment—or whether you consider them to be simply “sea-cows”—one still has to wonder what the point of supporting whaling is when the demand for the meat is waning and the industry has to rely on government support.

Is Whaling Worth It?

Critics of Japan’s practice of research whaling also note that 75 percent of the whale meat obtained from “the research” goes unsold at some auctions. Allegations made in 2010 that Japan bribes small-nation members of the International Whaling Conference to vote for relaxed whaling rules with cash and prostitutes or a combination of both also don’t do much for the national image.

So why is the whaling industry being sustained and who for? The only beneficiaries seem to be the individuals in the whaling industry, a small number of “whale meat” gourmands, maybe some crooked diplomats, and the specialty restaurants which can afford to offer a “delicious” whale meal of the day, thanks to Japanese government subsidies. For the time being, as long as the tax subsidies flow “Free Willy” has no place in the Japanese "free market."