In the United States, serving whale meat can cost you decades of jail-time as one sushi chef in Los Angeles recently learned; in Japan it costs you about $10, for the whale tempura special (￥980)*. If you go to one of Tokyo’s most famous whale specialty restaurants, Ganso Kujiraya (The Original Whale Seller), on a weekday, you can sometimes have the raw whale sashimi set for the same price; it comes with fresh ginger, soy sauce, salad, a steaming bowl of rice, and soup. While you’re there, you can pick up some whale bacon too as a souvenir. On a Saturday, elderly sisters visiting Tokyo stopped the restaurant to try out the advertised specials. “We were passing by and saw the sign and got nostalgic. It’s been decades since we ate any.” When asked how the tempura special was, the oldest sister replied in a hushed voice, “It’s a little dry and not as tasty as I remember. Try the whale bacon or the whale steak, that’s probably much better.”
The two ladies debated the intelligence of the animals briefly and then tried to explain what whale tasted like. One felt it tasted like inoshishi (wild boar). The younger sister said, “After the 3/11 (nuclear meltdown), I’m not sure I’d eat wild boar. They apparently are full of cesium. Radioactive.” When we pointed out that whale meat was sometimes known to have high levels of mercury, the eldest sister laughed and said, “Well, I guess there’s nothing safe to eat then,” and went back to enjoying her meal.
Many younger generations in Japan have never even eaten whale meat. Many of the older Japanese who ate it remember it as something served in school lunches during Japan’s post-war recovery. Toshio Nagashima, a 54 year old truck driver in Tokyo, says, “I remember eating it years ago. I can’t say it’s something I crave now. But I might eat some it if it was fresh. I hear the good stuff tastes like basashi (raw horse meat.)” A majority of the population in Japan have never had the experience of feasting on whale.
Well, there is some good news for the new generation–if you’re a kid enrolled in the Japanese public schools, your chances of getting to eat it in 2013 are twice as good as they were last year. The demand for whale appears to be declining and that appears to be driving the Japanese government’s efforts to get today’s youngsters to develop a taste for “the other red meat.”
Japan’s Fisheries Agency said that the state-funded Japan Institute of Cetacean Research (JICR) would sell whale meat acquired for its “scientific research” directly to individuals and restaurants this year. The institute also plans to double its distribution of whale meat to school-lunch programs, despite the high level of mercury contained in whale meat, by reducing prices. The Japan Institute of Cetacean Research is under the supervision of the Fisheries Agency and most of its funding comes from the Japanese government.
According to the Mainichi News, about 100 metric tons of whale meat is served in school lunches per year in Japan. The Ministry of Education says that it encourages schools to serve local specialities to their students, as long as the dishes meet the national nutritional standards set per meal for children. In Tokyo, the Higashi-machi and Shibaura elementary school in the Minato ward served whale meat this January as part of their traditional meals menu. “We do not serve whale meat just because it is cheaper than pork or beef, but to teach children about the kind of school lunches Japan had in the past,” a spokeswoman from Higashi-machi elementary school said. “Our whale meat lunch is one of our most popular menu items,” she added. The Minato-ward Board of Education insisted that schools do not serve whale meat every day to its students.
*For the rest of the story, please go here, to The Daily Beast: I’ll Have The Whale, Please: Japan’s Unsustainable Whale Hunts