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WDC in Japan – Part 5: The meaning of whaling

Katrin Matthes

Katrin Matthes

Katrin is WDC's communications and campaigns officer for policy & communication in Germany

Whaling has a centuries-old history in Japan and is often claimed to have deep roots in the country’s identity. But today, whale meat products are a rare find. After returning from Taiji, the next leg of my journey sought to answer an important question: is whaling an indispensable part of Japanese culture or is it just a cruel vestige upheld by a minority?

I visited a whaling museum on Omi, a southern island where coastal whaling once played an important role. The owner gave me an exclusive tour, explaining the history, techniques, and significance of whaling back then. Despite my opposition to whaling, I explained that I wouldn’t condemn the Japanese people, especially not from an ethical point of view, as I personally agree with the argument that killing many millions of pigs and cattle is no less inhumane. Instead, I wanted to understand why it remains significant for some and why it’s so difficult to leave behind.

miniature model old whaling ship_Nagato whaling museum2
old harpoons_Nagato whale museum
old whaling and flensing tools_Nagato whaling museum

Today, monuments, an annual festival, the museum, and a small shrine commemorate the glorious days of Japanese whalers in this region.

Close to the museum, a shrine honoring the killed whales was erected. I paused for a moment in front of a grave that had been created for the unborn baby whales, unintentionally killed through whaling. Hearing that the grave was built facing the ocean, allowing their souls to find their way back home, moved me deeply. It’s clear the Japanese relationship with whales is complex. Historically, whales were considered gifts from the gods and every part of the body was utilised, nothing was wasted. I'm sure there’s still a similar emotional connection to whales and whaling in the smaller whaling communities today, not only for cultural preservation but for economic reasons too. Whaling supports local food traditions and provides jobs and economic value through the sale of whale meat.

graveyard unborn whales_Nagato whaling museum5
graveyard unborn whales_Nagato whaling museum4

Whale shrine (left) and whale grave (right).

On the other hand, there’s hardly any demand for whale meat, yet several hundred whales are killed every year in Japan. Plus, imported fin whale meat from Iceland and minke whale meat from Norway has been piling up in freezers for years. I visited a shop in Shimonoseki, specialising in whale meat products and noticed that some labels didn’t say precisely where the whale meat came from. The shop assistant told me that these products were most likely meat from the so-called ‘scientific whaling’ which ceased in 2019 when Japan officially and openly resumed commercial whaling. If meat from this period is still sitting around in the shop freezers, why are so many whales being killed year after year?

I saw an abundance of whale meat products at a specialist whale meat shop in Shimonoseki, Japan.
I saw an abundance of whale meat products at a specialist whale meat shop in Shimonoseki, Japan.

This is where the whaling industry comes into play. Largely driven by one company, Kyôdô Senpaku, with minor involvement from small regional whalers, its bosses are continually coming up with all kinds of strategies to sustain the industry. I suspect that a lot of it has to do with pride, cultural identity and a reluctance to conform to Western ideals. Japan’s pride in its history and culture, alongside its commitment to preserve and protect it, makes the country a wonderful, magical place that inspires people. But this same pride might hinder its openness to evolve.

Minke whale

Can you help to stop whaling?

There’s a big focus on the importance of whaling, but the truth is that Japanese whaling only survives because of government subsidies. So even though hardly anyone in Japan eats whale meat, their taxes support a ‘tradition’ that has no meaning for most people.

For many years, efforts to increase sales of whale meat products have failed. Unsuccessful initiatives have included food festivals, serving deep-fried whale meat in school dinners, and promoting it as a delicacy to tourists. But the industry marketeers claim that demand is only low because nobody knows where to buy the products as many supermarkets no longer dare to sell whale meat. Unstaffed small shops have been set up in cities such as Tokyo and Osaka, where whale meat products can be bought from vending machines 24/7. And balenin, a substance that can be extracted from whale meat, is being promoted as a superfood dietary supplement.

Kujira-store_Yokohama_whale-meat2
Kujira-store_Yokohama_Beauty-products

Kyodo Senpaku plans to launch more unmanned stores, with the intention of increasing the number to about 100 nationwide over the next five years.

What shocked me most was that the consumption of whale meat is advertised as a contribution to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. Large posters tell shoppers that eating whale meat is a heroic deed for the planet. Some even claim there are too many whales and that they deprive humans of food. And that they must be decimated to preserve the natural balance of the planet and to protect the populations of fish and other marine wildlife that are destined for the plates of the Japanese.

Sei whale © Marcel Antons
In 2021, Japanese whaling vessels hunted 171 minke whales, 187 Bryde's whales and 25 sei whales © Marcel Antons

We know this isn’t true. Dwindling populations of fish are clearly the result of years of overfishing and the destruction of ecosystems by humans. Considering how many more whales there used to be before industrial whaling, the relatively few whales around today cannot possibly be to blame. They’re our climate allies, transporting nutrients across vast distances and helping the seas flourish. We need a healthy ocean, and a healthy ocean needs whales.

Whales help the ocean produce more oxygen and absord more carbon than all of Earth's forests

I’m optimistic that Japan can keep its close connection to whales and the heroic stories of the past alive without continuing to kill whales. It won’t happen overnight and change can be scary, but is the fear of change sufficient justification to continue hauling endangered wildlife out of the ocean and into the dark corner of a freezer?

I’ve made it my mission to find a way to protect both whales and Japanese culture and to inspire others to join me. You can help by not eating whale meat if you are offered it in a whaling country, and by respectfully opposing whaling worldwide. That would be a real heroic deed for the planet.

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