Japan journal: Where has all the whale meat gone?

I recently returned from my first visit to the chaotic and beautiful country of Japan.

Along with Iceland and Norway, Japan is one of the last three countries still killing whales for commercial purposes, albeit under the guise of ‘scientific’ whaling.

One of the purposes of this visit was to meet with international media based in Tokyo and to brief them, along with other useful contacts, on IFAW’s efforts to end commercial whaling; quite timely given that the Japanese whaling fleet is expected to leave port any day now to train its harpoons on up to 1,000 whales in the Southern Ocean Sanctuary, Antarctica.

The visit also gave me a valuable insight into Japanese culture and attitudes to whales and whaling. First stop was Tokyo’s huge Tsukiji Fish Market, the biggest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world, which handles 400 different types of seafood and more than 2,000 metric tonnes of seafood a day. Arriving just after 4.30am, the day’s business had already been in full swing for more than an hour and a half with all kinds of strange looking sea life, both alive and dead, changing hands.

Despite the wild variety of sea life on offer – we didn’t see any sign of whale meat on sale. We did see one regular whale meat stand decorated with cartoon whale pictures but no meat was on show – did they sell out early or did they simply have none for sale?

Hopefully the latter; IFAW’s work on the whaling issue and regular public polling make us very aware that there is limited appetite for whale meat these days. Still, at Tsukiji I expected to see a significant amount of meat on sale, given that Japan continues to kill hundreds of whales a year.

Perhaps we missed other whale meat stalls but they certainly weren’t an obvious component of the market. This was in stark contrast to Tsukiji’s famous tuna auctions, where dozens of buyers gather for frantic bidding on individual tuna which can sell for huge amounts of yen. The auctions always attract the attention of crowds of foreign tourists who now have to queue at 5.30am to ensure a place on a tour .

More good news in that most restaurants we visited didn’t seem to have whale meat on the menu. Stopping outside one specialised whale meat restaurant in the bustling Shibuya district, there was no sign of customers entering or leaving the restaurant.

While the myth that whale meat is a popular diet staple in Japan, Norway and Iceland is fading, the determination of a minority to continue whaling is not. Despite Japan’s stockpiled tonnes of whale meat and the huge operating costs associated with their ageing fleet; the government of Japan insists on spending millions of Yen in the propping up of this dying industry during already trying economic times.

This is why IFAW keeps working year-round in whaling countries, and at meetings of the International Whaling Commission, to fight for an end to the cruel practice of commercial whaling. IFAW believes responsible whale watching – a far more economically viable, humane and sustainable alternative to commercial whaling – should be the only ‘use’ of whales in the 21st Century.

A successful international whale watching conference staged by IFAW in Tokyo last year, and attended by enthusiastic whale watch operators from around the world, including Japan, Norway and Iceland, gives us hope that one day in the not too distant future, commercial whaling will cease to occur.

-- CS

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Brian Sharp, Emergency Relief Officer, Stranding Coordinator
Manager, Marine Mammal Rescue and Research
Dr. Maria (Masha) N. Vorontsova, Senior Advisor to the IFAW Marine Conservation
Senior Advisor to the IFAW Marine Conservation Program
Matt Collis, Director, International Policy
Director, International Policy
Patrick Ramage, Program Director, Whales
Program Director, Marine Conservation