Thursday, October 6, 2011

Whales, Culture & Dinner Plates

At a time when I was younger and studying Japanese but had not yet visited the country, I received an invitation to dinner at the home of a Japanese steel executive in suburban Los Angeles. A little nervous about how successful my Japanese would be, about making the right impression among people I respected, I put aside any concerns about what might turn up on the dinner table. Already a big fan of Japanese cuisine, including sushi and sashimi, I figured the food served would be excellent. Not long after arriving, seven of us sat in the living room sipping expensive Japanese scotch over ice, nibbling from a plate of unremarkable hors d’oeuvres when the hostess came in with a platter of something I didn’t recognize. It looked like unhealthy bits of mystery meat and not very enticing. Watching several of my dinner partners (all Japanese) pop bits of this new offering in their mouths, how could I refuse?

One bite later I had to disguise the shock and foul taste with a large gulp of scotch. It was my first and last time to eat whale.


But this is not a story about the taste of whale meat.


I try not to be ethnocentric in reading news of other countries on those occasions of coming across a report of policies or procedures in disagreement with my own thoughts and feelings. In many cases an unfamiliar culture or tradition is involved, and chances are great that something beyond my experience lies beneath the actions found disagreeable. For better or worse, that caveat doesn’t come into play when the ‘problem’ originates in a foreign country I called home most of my life. There are many aspects of Japan and Japanese culture that are as meaningful to me as they are to the natives of that country. But there are a few examples where I draw a line.


A news report on Wednesday stated that this winter Japan will resume hunting whales in the Southern Ocean. The hunt last winter was shortened by two months as a result of vigorous interference by anti-whaling activists acting under the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society banner. This time the Fisheries Agency is sending a patrol boat with the whaling ships and boosting measures to strengthen protection for their ships and personnel. The conservation society has vowed it will place over 100 activists in the Southern Ocean (the stretch of water between Africa, Australia and Antarctica) to block the whaling fleet. Sea Shepherd’s leader has described Japan’s whaling as ‘an invasion of arrogant greed into an established whale sanctuary.’


Fisheries Minister Michihiko Kano offers the long used and often rebutted reason for Japan’s whale hunt, saying that Japan wants to continue its whale research, hoping to prove that present whale stocks are sufficient enough to resume full scale hunting in the future. Such press releases fool very few outside of Japan, only underscoring Japanese insistence on finding ways to protect an archaic example of their culture that today impacts a small minority of the population, but mostly does the bidding of a fishing lobby. The reasoning behind Japan’s whale hunts is unrelated to science or research, and uses the emotional weight of culture and tradition to serve a profitable business for a small few.


Take a sampling of people off the street in Japan and ask these questions: How often do you eat whale meat? Have you ever eaten whale? Is it a common dish at home or in restaurants? Do you feel that eating whale is important in protecting Japan’s cultural integrity? And finally, if you have had the experience of eating whale, do you find it especially good or delicious? It’s a good bet that the answers to these questions would not support the claims of whale hunting advocates, who worry about threats to Japanese culture. Eating whale meat is an old and unshakable Japanese tradition, they will say. A sense of pride fuels this commitment and criticisms of whaling become “culturally arrogant.”


Japan has a long history of whaling, but organized whaling there dates from the early seventeenth-century. Whale meat was more common in earlier periods of the country’s history, though not anything like a regular or staple item in the diet. It was a different matter in the post-war years when food scarcities were severe and whale was eaten by a large number of Japanese. Growing out of that need, peak consumption came in 1962 when 226,000 tons of whale meat were sold and eaten nationwide. But needs and tastes have changed—tastes affected by modern culture which has been so avidly embraced by Japan—and the average Japanese living in any of the big cities today gives little thought to eating whale. Given a choice most would choose sushi, curry & rice, ramen or a Big Mac.

5 comments:

  1. These whales are huge!!! They look much larger than the tuna we saw at the fish market when we went. What a bloody sight. I agree with you that the lobbying to protect the industry is strictly for the business. Why can't they fish for other fish?

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  2. Very sobering post. That we hunt such beautiful creatures at all is a shame. We are the keepers of all things on earth and we exploit it all: the earth for minerals with strip mining lopping off entire mountain tops and fishing the sea until we tip the balance of what is available. And we will never learn to use what we need in a respectful manner. Never.

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About Me

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America