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How Japan’s whaling industry is trying to convince people to eat whales

Japan’s hunters kill hundreds of whales every year despite the fact that hardly anyone in Japan eats whale meat. But rather than have them hang up their harpoons, the whaling industry and the Fisheries Ministry have set their sights on children and young people and are rolling out cynical plans to convince them that eating whales is part of their cultural identity.

In November last year, we reported on the auction in Shimonoseki, Japan, where raw meat from sei whales was auctioned off for a new record price. Shimonoseki has been a base for whaling ships for decades and is one of the main hubs for whale meat processing.

When Japan’s government stopped pretending that its whaling was for scientific research purposes and openly resumed commercial whaling in 2019, they expected the whale meat market in Japan to pick up. Domestic consumption was about 2,000 tonnes in 2020, compared to 230,000 tonnes in 1962, the heyday of whale meat consumption in Japan. Demand remains vanishingly small - at least so far.

Antarctic minke whale alongside Japanese whaling ship.
Antarctic minke whale alongside Japanese whaling ship. Photo © Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert

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Expansion plans

The president of whaling company Kyodo Senpaku said: ‘For now, we are aiming for a consumption of 5,000 tonnes. We want to contribute to protecting Japan from a possible food crisis and improve our self-sufficiency. To this end, we will increase the catch.’ The Japanese Fisheries Agency also announced that it would like to have more whale species open to hunting by 2024.

In order to be able to expand the hunt further, a successor to the whaling mother ship Nisshin Maru is also under construction, to be completed in spring 2024. This successor will be even larger and more efficient. In addition, the whale slaughter deck will be moved inside to improve hygiene conditions. The switch to electric propulsion and more efficient product cooling is being sold as a contribution to sustainability efforts.

The Japanese government plans to more than double whale meat consumption in the short term, without a corresponding interest in the products and so demand in Japan must also be increased. To this end, a lot is being invested in promotions and events to rekindle the public appetite for whale meat.

They want to keep killing whales, so they need to persuade people to eat them.
They want to keep killing whales, so they need to persuade people to eat them.

Persuasion tactics

The Kyodo Senpaku whaling boss commented: ‘We want to make sure that the value of whale meat, which is part of Japan's traditional food culture, is well known in Japan, and we want to protect Japan's whaling.’

According to Joji Morishita, Professor of International Marine Policy at Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology, one of the ways they plan to do this is by offering the whale meat to tourists in whaling centres like Shimonoseki and Nagasaki, and selling it to them as a cultural experience. And indeed, articles and reports on campaigns and events are increasingly appearing in Japanese media.

The city of Nagasaki, where a larger amount of whale meat is still consumed, has declared November ‘Whale Month’ and has been holding the annual Nagasaki Past and Present Whale Cuisine Fair since 2008. Last November, 39 bars and other eateries promoted their whale dishes with banners announcing ‘We Serve Whale - Nagasaki, the City of Whales’. ‘We want to protect Nagasaki's important food culture’ said a city official.

Targeting youth

The whaling industry seems to pay particular attention to younger people in implementing its strategy. Food culture is fundamentally important in Japan and it’s closely interwoven with the sea. So the whaling industry recognises that it needs young people to really buy into this link between national identity and food culture based on the sea, and thus ensure its continuation.

Japanese whalers kill a whale despite little market for the meat. Photo: © Mark Votier.
Japanese whalers kill a whale despite little market for the meat. Photo: © Mark Votier.

Whale school dinners

In this context, it seems that every effort is being made to establish whale meat as an indispensable part of food culture in the minds of the population. Initiatives such as a ‘fish culture’ event in Yokohama, which included a session on the ‘sustainable’ consumption of whales, and the ‘School of Whale Eating’ with primary school children and their parents organized by the Japan Cetacean Research Institute and the Japan Fisheries Society are examples of this strategy in action. At the ‘School of Whale Eating’, playful workshops for parents and children aim to deepen the understanding of the whaling culture and teach about the sustainable use of ‘whale resources’ in an easily understandable way.

Meanwhile, in the city of Satsumasendai where whale meat is also traditionally eaten, the Kagoshima Whale Food Culture Preservation Society is planning to offer whale meat in schools and children's cafeterias again as soon as the Covid crisis has subsided.

Myth busting

It remains to be seen how the Japanese public will react to the numerous promotional attempts and whether whaling advocates can actually succeed in reviving the dwindling interest in whale meat products.

With your support and working with our colleagues both in Japan and around the world, we’re doing everything we can to prevent the whaling industry’s attempts to influence. Our goal is to convince the people of Japan that whales do not belong on a plate, but must be protected at all costs, because they have the right to live free from the threat of harpoons, and because we need them as our allies in the fight against climate change and the loss of biodiversity.

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About Katrin Matthes

Katrin is WDC's Communications and campaigns officer in our German office. Her main focus is supporting our campaigns to end commercial whaling and small whale hunts off Japan. Katrin also oversees the education and kids content on our German website.

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