Next week is the final week of the International Whaling Commission’s annual conference, and, as in previous years, Japan will be applying strong diplomatic pressure to ease the ban on commercial whaling, and expand the species it is currently allowed to hunt for scientific purposes.
Schoolchildren in the western coastal district of Wakayama are now being offered an unusual addition to their lunch menus. Whale.
The Wakayama education board is supplying whale meat to around 280 schools, to try to promote awareness of the region’s whaling traditions.
“We’ve been practising whaling since the beginning of the 17th Century,” Tetsuji Sawada, a local education official told the BBC, “but the tradition is dying out.”
To make the dish more appetising, the whale is being fried in breadcrumbs, or minced into burgers.
The board had to lobby the government to bring down the price to keep it within their budget.
All of the whale meat sold in Japan comes from the 400 whales or so that Japan kills every year for “scientific purposes”.
The Wakayama initiative underscores an awkward problem confronting the whaling lobby here.
For all of Japan’s success in winning support from other countries for its campaign to ease the restrictions on whaling – especially smaller countries which receive Japanese aid – the Japanese people are losing interest.
Whale meat is only served in a few specialist restaurants, and occasionally appears on supermarket shelves. Younger people almost never eat it.
So why does Japan exert so much diplomatic effort on this issue?
The official line is that whaling is an integral part of Japanese culture, a practice dating back hundreds of years.
How would they feel if we told Americans they couldn’t hunt deer, or if we told Australians to stop hunting kangaroos?
That isn’t quite true. A few coastal communities, like Wakayama, have been hunting whales for centuries, traditionally with hand-held harpoons.
But the rest of Japan only became familiar with eating whale during the 20th Century, as modern ships with harpoon-guns became available.
Whale meat was especially widespread in the difficult years after the Second World War, when it was seen as a cheap source of protein.
But as incomes rose, people switched to imported beef, or fish like tuna and salmon. With such an abundance of high-quality protein available these days, few Japanese see the point in eating whale, which doesn’t taste that special.
There are other reasons for Japan’s determined campaign.
“If the current ban on hunting whales is allowed to become permanent,” says Hideki Moronuki, at the Fisheries Agency, the government department leading the campaign, “activists may direct their efforts to restricting other types of fishing.”
As Japan consumes more fish than any other nation, it worries about possible curbs on its fishing activities in open seas for species like tuna.
Officials also like to claim that whales damage fish stocks because of the quantities they eat, although this is largely dismissed by scientists in the rest of the world.
But perhaps the biggest factor is resentment of being told by other countries what Japan can and cannot do.
“Why do people in the west make such a big deal about our very limited hunting of whales?” asks Hideki Moronuki.
“How would they feel if we told Americans they couldn’t hunt deer, or if we told Australians to stop hunting kangaroos?”
He argues that Japan has always relied on the sea for its food – pretty much everything that moves in salt water can be found on sale in Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji fish market – so why single out whales for exemption, provided they are hunted sustainably, like every other fish?
The counter-argument by conservationists is that whale populations are still too vulnerable for any hunting to be sustainable.
They are outraged by Japan’s plan to start killing a few humpback whales as part of its “scientific” cull.
At the moment that cull includes mainly smaller minke whales.
The World Wildilfe Fund has described the scientific research carried out by Japan on the whales it kills “a sham”.
It says it is possible to get information about the whales’ diet and health from skin samples, without killing them.
“Japan’s whaling programme is about business and politics, but not sound science,” says the WWF.
Other activists agree. John Frizell, an anti-whaling campaigner at Greenpeace, believes much of the impetus behind Japan’s efforts to re-start commercial whaling comes from bureaucrats within the Fisheries Agency, who fear losing influence or even their jobs if the issue dies away.
Some activists suspect the pro-whaling campaign is being driven by nationalists within the government, who see it as an opportunity for Japan to be seen to be standing up to pressure from other developed countries.
“As long as officials present the issue as one of Japan being bullied by the rest of the world”, says John Frizell, “they can probably keep the Japanese public behind them.” BBC