For a Plate of Whale...
By Suvendrini Kakuchi*
Tierramérica visited a restaurant specializing in whale meat in Japan, a country that is insisting on a removal of the international whaling ban and which has just blocked the creation of two new sanctuaries for these ocean giants.
TOKYO - Business is brisk at Kujiraya, Tokyo's only restaurant specializing in whale meat. Every day, 200 to 300 people dine here, a substantial figure given the stinging international criticism against Japan, which insists on easing up on the 15-year-old ban in whaling.
Customers both young and old keep coming back to Kujiraya. ''Here they can eat whale meat that cannot be easily purchased elsewhere in Japan as a result of the trading ban,'' the restaurant's manager, who preferred anonymity, told Tierramérica.
Kujiraya, meaning ''whale shop'' in Japanese, boasts a menu that includes the expensive ''sashimi'', or the best cuts of whale meat - served raw -, and a variety of other dishes that include whale that is braised, fried, or stewed with vegetables. The average price for each dish is approximately 1,300 yen (10.3 dollars).
Whale meat was a cheap source of protein for the Japanese during and just after the Second World War when people were too poor to afford fish, beef or pork.
Whale meat, for example, was on the school lunch menu for Japanese children in the 1960s when commercial whaling was at its height.
But the ban agreed in 1986 changed all that: whale has now become a delicacy, fetching as much as 1,000 yen (7.98 dollars) for a 100 grams, on par with the best cuts of choice Japanese beef.
The Japan Whaling Association reports that the Japanese consumed 2,500 tons of whale meat from December 1999 to November 2000. Most of it came from Minke whale and Bryde's beaked whale caught through coastal whaling or in the hunts that Japan stresses are for ''scientific purposes,'' authorized in 1987 by the International Whaling Commission (IWC), which protects these giant ocean mammals. Environmental groups charge that the Japanese are using scientific whaling to mask what they say is really poaching.
At the IWC meeting, which concluded last week in London, the countries opposed to whale hunting, which include the United States, once again issued a condemnation against Japan. Though this Asian country and Norway were unable to win the removal of the whaling ban, they racked up one victory: they vetoed the creation of whale sanctuaries, one in the South Atlantic, and the other in the South Pacific, which had the support of several Latin American countries, such as Argentina, Brazil and Mexico.
The Japanese government claims a long national history in whaling, one that dates back to the 16th century. Archeological excavations indicate the practice could have occurred even before that, as paintings have been discovered of primitive whaling in which Japanese fishermen harvested the giant mammals with hand-held harpoons.
Take the case of Yoshika Shimoishi, 49, a whale hunter who lives in Abashiri, in Hokkaido, northern Japan, a fishing village that is still dependent on whaling.
''My grandfather and father were both whale hunters and as a child whale meat was a staple part of the diet in our whole village,'' he told Tierramérica.
''The ban denies the right to maintain a Japanese tradition," says Shimoishi, a father of three who participates in Japan's scientific whaling programs each year and worries the continued ban threatens his only livelihood. ''I am worried about the consequences for people like me resulting from western countries' determination to punish Japan for its pro-whaling position,'' he says.
Shimoishi's fear is well founded. A survey conducted by environmentalists last September revealed only one in ten Japanese support whaling against 11 percent who oppose it, and nearly 40 percent said they were indifferent. It also shows that 60 percent of those polled have not eaten whale meat since childhood.
Taiji, a town in Wakayama Prefecture in south-central Honshu, that once prospered as the cradle of whaling, is also facing alarming changes as a result of the ban.
Today, just 10 people in the town that juts out into the Pacific Ocean, continue the tradition, by seizing small whales that are excluded from the International Whaling Commission's ban on commercial whaling. The population of Taiji has fallen by 20 percent from what it was in the 1960s.
Taiji is now turning to whale watching tours in a bid to survive. Masashi Urayama, a former fisherman who used to catch dolphins, says he is turning his efforts toward organizing whale watching tourism, which he says is one of the few remaining industries for Taiji.
The whaling town is home to the Taiji Whale Museum where visitors can see dolphins twice a day and also has a whale meat restaurant.
Despite the efforts, the local people report that the going is tough. Taiji is still not connected to the main expressway and the number of visitors to the Museum has fallen by half.
''Commercial whaling is the only way to survive,'' says Iwao Isone, 74, who owns a small whaling ship.
Last year, Masateru Seko, 24, returned home to Taiji after he lost his job at a paper mill in another town as a result of restructuring. He joined the fleet of ships for scientific whaling and left for the Antarctic last November. He was the first young man from Taiji to join the whaling industry in 20 years.
* Suvendrini Kakuchi is an IPS correspondent.