Food & Dining

Whale Meat: A Controversial Japanese Food

Whales are undoubtedly among the cutest animals we know and, for this reason, many contemporary Westerners can’t imagine hunting, much less eating them. But that’s exactly what’s happening in a few countries like Japan where whale meat is considered a delicacy. Indeed, whale meat is among the most controversial food in Japanese cuisine mainly because many species of whales are considered endangered.

But there are also things about whale meat consumption in Japan that will surprise outsiders.

Days of Nostalgia

Before, whale meat was eaten by many, if not most, Japanese as a meat replacement for all protein sources. Ask any middle-aged Japanese about his or her memories of whale meat and the answer will likely hark back to nostalgia, particularly of school meals nearly 50 years ago. At that time, whale meat was a staple in the Japanese diet.

But it isn’t today although it may seem so to outsiders. Today, there are only handfuls of Japanese who will actively seek out whale meat. The decline can be attributed to many reasons, many of which have something to do with Japan’s stable food supply and changing tastes.

There are plenty of other meat sources, for one thing, including fish – and the Japanese love their fish, whether it’s served raw or cooked – beef and pork. The censure of the outside world, especially conservationists, has also contributed to the decline of whale meat such that it isn’t a major protein source anymore.

Of course, there are still a few restaurants that specialize in whale meat. Most of them, however, are in Tokyo. Don’t expect the likes of Sarku Japan and Benihana to serve them for obvious reasons.

The supply from fish markets has also decreased. In Tsukiji, Japan’s largest fish market, there are only two dealers still selling whale meat. Business is bad, too, according to the dealers, not only because the number of whales being caught has decreased but also because the taste for it among the Japanese has also decreased.

And to compound the dealers’ business issues, the price for whale meat hasn’t increased even as there’s a whale meat shortage. Again, the dwindling demand for it is to blame, and we can’t blame the conservationists for rejoicing.

Just how much whale meat do the Japanese consume? According to research, the average consumption was 30 grams – or one ounce – per person in 2015.

The most common whale hunted for its meat is minke, a species found in Antarctica. Fin whale, an endangered species, is also common; its trading is now banned by CITES.

Not for the Faint-Hearted

If you enter a restaurant serving whale meat, a few of which are in Kabukicho (Tokyo’s infamous red light district), it feels like being transported into another era. Whale memorabilia, even a mummified whale penis, are usually displayed on the walls so customers immediately get the idea.

Keep in mind that whale meat is usually served sashimi-style – raw, if you still don’t know it by now. The platter will also include different parts of the whale, which are considered as delicacies: heart, tongue, steak, and skin. It isn’t food for the faint-hearted, not even if you’re used to sashimi.

Whale steak sashimi has strong gamey flavor, and it’s fibrous as it’s chewy. Whale tongue tastes like how you imagine it to be – fishy, salty and chewy. You may want to stop here because another bite of raw whale meat will challenge your iron constitution, even if you’re in the league of Andrew Zimmern.

Part of Culture

But if whale meat – and hunting whales, for that matter – isn’t necessary for feeding the Japanese, why does it continue to be sold? There’s also the fact that whale hunting continues to be widely condemned worldwide, not to mention that it isn’t profitable, as the Tsukiji whale meat dealers lament.

Because it’s an essential part of ancient Japanese culture, according to the Japanese government. The Japanese has a strong attachment to its ancient traditions and a strong drive, too, toward a tech-propelled future. You only need to be in Tokyo to see the juxtaposition between the past, present and future – women in their kimonos using the latest smartphones are an example.

Japanese fishermen have been catching whales for centuries, a tradition that most are hesitant to let go. Taiji in the Wakayama prefecture, notorious for its yearly annual hunts, is a prime example. Other examples include Chiba Prefecture and Ishinomaki, places where whale hunting is as nearly as vibrant today as it was centuries ago.

Whale hunting is also rooted in necessity. After World War II, the Japanese people resorted to whale hunting to address its food scarcity issue; Japan converted two US Navy tankers into factory ships and sailed them to the Southern Ocean for whale hunting purposes. For 20 years, whale meat was the major protein source in the country.

Today, whale meat is considered a novelty. But it seems the Japanese still have a taste for it because whale hunting is still present. But hey, each to his own, an adage that applies to food as well.

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