Is Japan's Hunger for Whale Meat Waning?

Frozen tuna bodies being moved via forklift in Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo, Japan

IFAW’s whale watching conference in Tokyo is just a day away and unlike many past whale watching workshops I’m not really sure what to expect. In Iceland the whale watch operators are angry because the very whales relied on for their businesses success are being killed. Do Japan’s operators have similar concerns, or are they unaware their government is spending tax dollars subsidizing the killing of whales that live thousands of miles away.

Out of approximately 190 countries in the world, 113 have active whale and dolphin watching industries and only three nations hunt whales commercially. Whale watching generates more than $2 billion every year, but rather than support watching live whales as an economic boost, Japan seems more inclined to spend tax dollars to kill them.

I purposely arrived here in Tokyo early so that I could to visit the world famous Tsukiji fish market. It might sound a bit extreme to travel halfway around the world and then immediately head to a fish market at 4:00 am, but spending an hour or two walking among the five thousand vendors is a dramatic lesson in Japan’s relationship with marine life.

Japan is an island nation, and I knew I was traveling to a country whose population eats about nine times more seafood per capita than global average. But seeing it first hand is a very different thing. It seemed as though every fish under the sea was somewhere at the Tsukiji market. Everywhere I looked, I saw iced octopus, dried cornetfish, and even live filefish, bream and pufferfish waiting in aquarium tanks to become a meal. I’m no stranger to fish markets -- I come from a town in the US that depends heavily on commercial fishing -- but Tsukiji is incomprehensible.  Every shape and size of fish, from every region of the world, was somewhere under the corrugated steel roof. Most depressing was the sheer volume of species we know without doubt are vanishing from our oceans. Flash frozen carcasses of giant bluefin tuna, the oceanic equivalent of lions and tigers, lay neatly spaced in even rows where they awaited sale at each day's morning auction. These fish are the product of unsustainable fishing and ranching all over the world. (Ranching is when fish are captured and fattened up in a floating cage) Their ability to migrate thousands of miles across ocean basins and reach sizes that rival a mid-size car is no match for the many fishing vessels plying remote waters for every last fish. Demand is high and tuna populations are in free fall, an unfortunate situation where basic economics makes these fish very valuable. Sadly, Japan’s voracious appetite appears to be fueling a fast-paced extinction for these ocean giants.

Despite Japan’s seafood-consuming culture, I did take some comfort in my early morning visit to the market. I explored every aisle I could and in doing so hardly ever saw any whale meat. That’s not what I expected at all. Japan goes to extreme lengths to kill whales in an international sanctuary off the Antarctic coast, yet it was almost impossible to find whale meat for sale. Early morning at Tsukiji is busiest with people in every corner moving, icing, and setting up displays of seafood. However the one area for the whale meat vendor was a ghost town. A block of blood red meat was visible under a plastic covering and not a single person could be seen anywhere near it. Is this an indication that Japan's hunger for whale meat is waning?

If demand for whale meat is so slight, why would Japan undertake such a horrific hunt the entire world opposes? I can’t help but wonder if the remoteness of Japan’s whale hunting and the poor enthusiasm for whale meat is why the whale watching industry isn’t up in arms, as it is in Iceland….or maybe it is? Hopefully the conference will shed some light on this.


For more information on IFAW efforts to protect whales around the world, visit

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