Harpoons concealed beneath tarpaulins, five boats pulled away from the northern Japanese harbour town of Kushiro last week. A thousand miles south in Shimonoseki, three other ships did likewise. Upon their return, the catch of the day – eight metres long and perhaps five tonnes in weight – was doused in ceremonial cups of sake, as is tradition. It is a ritual dating back hundreds of years, when Japan’s seafarers first began hunting whales. Now, after a three decade hiatus, the controversial practice is legal in Japanese waters once more.
Announcing its departure from the International Whaling Commission (IWC), Japan has chosen to defy the group’s global moratorium on catching and killing whales. The ban had been in place since 1986, but, in truth, hunters from the island nation have been far from idle in recent times – under the guise of ‘scientific research’, they’ve been catching between 200 and 1,200 whales annually. Transported back from the Antarctic waters where the expeditions are permitted, the meat invariably found its way onto Japanese dinner plates.
By legalising commercial whaling, Japan’s authorities have explicitly endorsed a practice deemed unethical by many. With pollution and climate change already posing an existential threat to marine life, the added burden of hunting may shift the teetering scales towards extinction, campaigners say. One of the species permitted in the hunt – sei whales – is already listed as endangered. And many believe the practice to be physically cruel.
“Due to their size, there is no humane way to kill a whale and they can take a significant amount of time to die,” said Lewis Pugh, the UN’s ‘Patron of the Oceans’, adding that the move set a “worrying precedent”.
But defenders of the industry say whaling is an integral part of Japan’s cultural identity. Archaeological records show that, washed up on beaches, the sea mammals were first eaten there several thousand years ago. By the 16th century, Japanese seafarers had begun targeted hunts, as depicted in the era’s artwork and literature. But it wasn’t until the Second World War and the years of privation which followed that whale meat – cheap, nutritious and plentiful – became a national staple.
Consumption of more common meats resumed in the latter half of the 20th century, however – and the dish is now mostly associated with older generations. Advocates of the whaling ban say the lack of modern-day demand justifies a suspension of the practice. Indeed, despite its availability through scientific research, whale flesh constituted no more than 0.1% of Japan’s total meat consumption in 2016, government data indicates.
Despite this, polling shows overall support for whaling in Japan, even if most don’t want to eat the meat themselves. Some 53% of those surveyed by state broadcaster NHK were in favour of commercial whaling, with 37% against. Such is its popularity, the political incentives for easing laws on the practice are clear to see. Japan’s right-leaning prime minister Shinzō Abe has championed whale hunting, presenting himself as a defender of Japanese heritage in the face of international brow-beating.
But the industry is a drain on his administration, which each year dishes out $400m in subsidies to keep it afloat. With commercial whaling employing no more than 300 people, that’s a high sum for little return, critics say. That could be the reason why, ironically, the government’s lifting of the ban will see fewer whales caught than before. Abe has instituted an annual catching cap of 227 whales – 40% less than were killed in the final year of scientific expeditions, which have now ceased.
This seems to be a very “Japanese-elegant way” of allowing the industry to die out on its own, said Patrick Ramage, director of marine conservation for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). “This is a face-saving way out of whaling, the beginning of the end of Japanese whaling,” he added.
For the likes of Hideki Abe, a 23-year-old whaler from Ishinomaki, this should be unwelcome news. But, setting out on his first commercial voyage, he seemed upbeat. “I’m a bit nervous but happy that we can start whaling,” he said. “I don’t think young people know how to cook and eat whale meat any more. I want more people to try to taste it at least once”.
And with the dish now reaching their tables through more conventional routes, maybe they will. But, regardless the buzz around its newfound legality, whale meat looks unlikely to become the dietary staple it once was, especially if strict government quotas drive up prices. And while legalising the practice became something of a cause célèbre for conservative politicians, it could simply be a warning shot ahead of a more important battle – growing calls for an international ban on endangered bluefin tuna, which Japan imports in bulk. Either way, fried, stewed, or raw, whale is – for now – back on the menu.