Japan Pushes Whaling as Consumers' Appetite Fades
Author: Elaine Lies
"If you just serve whale raw, young people won't eat it," says Ichihara, who serves the burgers -- fried whale meat in a bun with salad, mayonnaise and tomato sauce -- once a month at his restaurant in Wada, a coastal whaling town southeast of Tokyo.
"So I decided to put it between bread, to encourage more people to eat whale. Whale is part of our food culture, so I wish it could be made more available."
Keen to resume commercial hunts banned by the International Whaling Commission in 1986, Japan will host a special gathering of IWC nations from Tuesday, ahead of its annual meeting in May.
Japanese officials argue a blanket ban on whaling is not needed since some species have recovered enough to be hunted again, and want to shift the IWC's emphasis to whale management.
They also say they hope the gathering will promote dialogue within the increasingly polarised organisation.
But only 34 of the IWC's 72 members are expected to attend the Tokyo meeting, while some 26 anti-whaling countries including the United States, Australia, Britain are boycotting.
Despite their government's dedication to whaling in the face of harsh international criticism, appetite for the delicacy is waning among ordinary Japanese.
"I don't really want to eat whale, though I have in the past," said Hitoko Makigaki, 44, as she took a cigarette break outside in downtown Tokyo. "The number of whales is falling and there's a lot of other good things to eat these days."
The nonchalance contrasts with the alarm that greeted cuts in Japan's quota for bluefin tuna, a prized sushi ingredient.
"As for whale, I can take it or leave it," said Yuji Sasaki, 39, who works for a marketing firm. "Tuna is much tastier."
Many older Japanese ate whale in school lunches after it was introduced under US Occupation authorities following Japan's defeat in World War Two, when whale was an important source of protein for an economically devastated Japan.
Appetites waned when prices rose after the 1986 whaling ban.
"There was a time when there was only whale to eat and we didn't have meat. We had no choice," said Yoko Tomiyama, chairwoman of the Consumers' Union of Japan.
"But I really wonder why the state now is so reluctant to stop whaling and instead is pushing whale on people."
Japan -- which says whaling is a cherished cultural tradition -- began what it calls scientific research whaling in 1987.
The meat, which under IWC rules must be sold for consumption, ends up in pricey restaurants and on supermarket shelves, but is far from a daily menu choice.
Whale meat stockpiles rose to 4,403 tonnes as of last November from 3,634 tonnes at the end of 2005, according to the Fisheries Agency.
Activists argue the glut proves a decline in popular demand.
"Unless they manage to sell the whale they take, they can't keep on with scientific whaling," said Nanami Kurasawa, secretary-general of the Dolphin & Whale Action Network, an environmental group. "They have to sell to hunt."
Last year a company was set up to expand the sale of whale meat to hospitals, school lunch caterers and restaurant chains.
The government touts whale as healthy and high in protein, and a number of primary schools served it in lunches last month.
But some consumer groups say whale should be shunned, if only for health reasons, since they argue some may be tainted with mercury, cancer-causing dioxin or polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).
"Eating is a private choice. We don't think the government should be interfering, giving out money and promoting whale in schools," said Tomiyama, the Consumers' Union chairwoman.
(Additional reporting by Takanori Isshiki)