shopping mall whale in Osaka
The Japanese have been hunting whales for more than 1,000 years. There are dozens of religious ceremonies, shrines and festivals that incorporate whales in some way. Whalebone sticks, for example, are used to strike bells at Gion Matsuri festival in Kyoto. One bell ringer said that plastic replacement don't produce as nice a sound as the whalebone varieties.

The whaling industry has lot a political clout in Japan and is strongly supported by nationalists and right wing extremists, who call the denial of the Japanese right to eat and hunt whales “cultural imperialism.” Some whaling towns still have towers dedicated to souls of whales and lookout towers used to spot them offshore.

According to the Guinness Book of Records, the largest sperm whale ever (68 feet) was caught off the Kuril Islands in 1950 in waters claimed by Japan. A whale that was found stranded in shallow waters off Tsunoshima island in Hohokkucho was identified as a new species: the Tsunoshima whale. The whale found was 11 meters long and had a jaw and DNA that were unique.

In March 2007, a fisherman was killed when the boat he was in was struck by an injured whale during an attempt to rescue the animal. The 15-meter-long whale had been spotted in three-meter-deep water. During an attempt to save the whale by moving it to deeper water with a rope the whale thrashed violently and struck the boat, which had three people on aboard. The three were thrown into the sea. While two were rescued immediately, the body of the victim--58-year-old Noriyuki Yamamoto--could not be found. His body was discovered about two hours later. The whale was able to swim from the shallow water on its own.

Websites and Resources

Good Websites and Sources: Whales Whales on the American Cetacean Society Website acsonline.org/factpack ; Whale Pictures whales.org.au/gallery ; Whale Watching in Japan Whale Watching on the Inland Sea whale route.com ; Ogasawara whale watching Ogasawara whale watching ; whale watching in Okinawa Kerama Islands whale watching

Whaling Life Magazine Whaling Photos life.com/image ; International Whaling Commission iwcoffice.org ; Japanese Whaling Institute of Cetacean Research icrwhale.org ; Whaling Library luna.pos.to/whale ; Japan Whaling Association whaling.jp/english ; Japan Fisheries Agency Whaling Page jfa.maff.go.jp ; Anti-Whaling Activists: Sea Shepherd seashepherd.org ; Greenpeace Japan greenpeace.or.jp ;

Dolphins Dolphin Watching at Dolphin Club Miyakejima Dolphin Club Miyakejima;Save Japan Dolphins savejapandolphins.org ; Wikipedia article on Dolphin Hunting Wikipedia ; The Cove Movie thecovemovie.com ; Wikipedia article on Taiji Wikipedia

Links in this Website: ANIMALS AND ENDANGERED ANIMALS IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; ALIEN ANIMALS IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; GIANT SQUIDS, SHARKS , THE SEA AND JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; WHALES, WHALING AND DOLPHIN HUNTS IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; SEAFOOD IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; SUSHI Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; FUGU (BLOWFISH) IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; FISHING IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; BLUEFIN TUNA FISHING AND JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; TSUKIJI FISH MARKET IN TOKYO Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; TRADITIONAL FISHING IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; PEARLS AND JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ;

Good Sites on Wild Animals: Animal Info animalinfo.org/country/japan ;Japan Animals Blog /japan-animals.blogspot.com ; Hub Pages on Wild Animals in Japan hubpages.com/hub/japanfacts ; ARKive (do a Search for Japan or the Animal Species You Want) arkive.org Animal Picture Archives (do a Search for the Animal Species You Want) animalpicturesarchive

Whale Watching in Japan

Killer whales used to inhabit the seas off Hokkaido in great numbers but then for a long time they were rarely seen after they were indiscriminately hunted during World War II. Now pods with 10 or so members are regularly spotted in seas off Shiretoko Peninsula from spring to summer.

Whale Watching Tours are organized by several groups in Naha and Zamami on Okinawa, including the Zamami Whale Watching Association, which uses relatively small boats and dispenses with the unnecessary land tours of the island. A two-hour tour costs about ¥5,000 person and leaves from Zamamai on the Keram islands, which is reached by a one-hour high-speed ferry that leaves from Tomari Port in Naha at 9:00am and cost about ¥5,000 for a round-trip ticket.

Every year between January and April, hundreds of humpback whales migrate through the area. The humpbacks have only been seen in the area since the mid 1990s but about 270 of them have been counted in the peak season. Humpbacks come to the Kerama islands come between January and March to raise their young. In April they head north to feed. The boat sometimes takes about an hour to reach the place where the humpbacks hang out. Other times they are spotted in a few minutes.

The trips involve going to a spot where whales are usually seen and waiting. When a whale is spotted the boat races off for a closer look, but always maintains a distance of greater 100 meters. The whales rarely dive for more than 15 minutes so when one dive the guides does his best to predict where it will show up next. Website: whale watching in Okinawa visitokinawa.jp

Tokashiki Island (reached by ferry from Naha) is the largest island in the Aja group. Humpback whales breed off the coast here from January to April, after migrating from Alaska. Whale watching tours are offered about $75 a head. In the old days humpbacks were common here and then disappeared as a result of whaling. In the 1990s they returned and their numbers have been steadily increasing since then. A few years ago rules were passed that limited the number of whale watching boats so the whales wouldn't be harassed.

New 'Beaked' Whale Species Discovered off of Japan

whale meat sashimi
In 2019, it was announced that a new 'beaked' whale species had been discovered off the Japanese coast. Danielle Demetriou wrote in The Telegraph: “A small black whale found in Pacific Ocean waters off the northern coastline of Japan has been identified by scientists as a new species. Whalers based in Japan’s northernmost island Hokkaido are thought to have long been aware of the existence of the beaked whales, referring to them by a local name karasu, meaning “crow”. Scientists from the National Museum of Nature and Science at Hokkaido University have confirmed that the rare whales are a species that has never been formally identified. [Source: Danielle Demetriou, The Telegraph, September 6, 2019]

“Their findings were based on the examination of several deceased specimens, including DNA testing, which led to the cetaceans being officially named the Black Baird’s beaked whale, or Berardius minimus (B. minimus). Professor Takashi Matsuishi, from the Fisheries Sciences faculty at Hokkaido University, told Science Daily: “There are still many things we don't know about B. minimus. We still don't know what adult females look like, and there are still many questions related to species distribution, for example. We hope to continue expanding what we know about B. minimus.”

“Beaked whales are known to be low profile, with a capacity to dive for long periods and a preference for deep waters, which means their behaviour has not been as well documented as many other cetaceans. Researchers reportedly tapped into the Marine Mammal Stranding networks, which shares information among scientists about stranded or deceased marine mammals. They subsequently collected six stranded beaked whales along the Japan’s northern coast off the Okhost Sea before conducting in-depth analysis of their make-up. “Just by looking at them, we could tell that they have a remarkably smaller body size, more spindle-shaped body, a shorter beak, and darker color compared to known Berardius species," added Tadasu Yamada, a member of the research team and curator of the National Museum of Nature and Science.

Whale Meat in Japan

Japan has hunted whales for centuries. The meat was a key, affordable source of protein in the post-World War II years when the country was desperately poor. Anual consumption peaked at 223,000 tons in 1962. Since then whale has been replaced by other meats. Today, the annual consumption is about 4,000-5,000 tons a year, according to the Fisheries Agency. Much of the population has rarely or never eaten whale meat.[Source: AFP, Associated Press]

Coco Masters wrote in Time:“Whale meat resembles venison with its heavily oxygenated, dark red color that suggests lean, high-protein muscle. In Japan, it can be found in some supermarkets for about $33 a pound. Whale is high in the fatty acids DHA and EPA and low in cholesterol. But not many Japanese eat the controversial seafood. And so, the Japan Fisheries Association is encouraging a whale consumption program and backing a Tokyo-based firm Geishoku Labo and the "Asian Lunch" trucks it sends to Tokyo’s business districts. The truck serves whale boxed lunches on weekdays and, for the Thursday special, a special green or red keema curry with chunks of whale served with rice. [Source: Coco Masters, Time, December 26, 2007]

Jake Adelstein and Nathalie-Kyoko Stucky wrote in the Daily Beast:“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. 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. And 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. [Source: Jake Adelstein and Nathalie-Kyoko Stucky, Daily Beast, February 5, 2014]

“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 agency 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.

Love of Whale Meat in Japan

whale burger
Many Japanese, especially older and middle-ages ones, enjoy eating whale meat. It is sauteed, roasted and eaten raw. Japanese say it tastes more like beef than fish. Whale bacon sells for as much as $180 a pound at gourmet food shops and dishes made with whale go for as much as $100 a plate at restaurants.

Whale meat is dark red and doesn't look at like fish meat. Japanese consider blue, fin and sei whales to be the most delicious. Sperm whales aren't regarded as very tasty. Humpback meat isn't considered that good but the organs are palatable. Japanese generally like minke whales less than other species because they are small and don't contain much fat, which is what the Japanese love. Meat from minke whales is the easiest to get today. Before the 1987 ban on whaling the Japanese didn't even hunt them.

Whale meat in Japan has traditionally made into stews with soy sauce and spinach. These stews are now made with beef or pork. In the whaling town of Wadamachi in Chiba you can get whale steaks, whale jerky, carved whale-tooth jewelry and even a one-meter-long decorated whale penis. Some towns sell whale nose cartilage pickled in sake in cans with a spouting whale. Those who have tried it said the cartilage has a crispy texture and a pungent taste.

Taruichi, a Tokyo restaurant that specializes in whale meat, offers 36 choices: fried whale, whale bacon, whale heart, whale testicles, whale kidney and even ice cream made with whale fat. Boiled tongue is said to be particularly delicious. At whale restaurants in Shimonoseki you can get fried whale tail, grilled whale tongue wafers, boiled blubber and whale sashimi. In some places you can get sliced whale skin and whale burgers made with fried minke whale.

Whale meat distributors claim that whale meat is high in protein and low in calories and have alleviated the problem of toughness associated with whale meat through improved freezing techniques. The tail meat sells for as much $70 a pound and is prized for whale sashimi. which is eaten with grated garlic or ginger to mask the odor. The health benefits of whale meat is a matter of some debate. On study found that Japanese in Wakayama Prefecture that eat pilot whale have high levels of mercury in their hair.

Whale Meat and the Japanese Diet

The amount of whale meat consumed rose from 2,450 tons in 2000, most of it from minke and Baird's beaked whales, to 5,560 tons in 2005. In a survey in 2002, 63 percent of the people over 60 and 47 percent of those between 20 and 24 said they ate whale meat, but of these 40 percent said they only eat it “sometimes.”

The Japanese were encouraged to eat whale meat after World War II to stave off famine and schoolchildren ate whale meat for lunch into the 1960s. One elderly man who ate a lot of whale when he was growing up told the New York Times, "After the war, there was nothing to eat in Japan, and we would have starved if it were not for the whale bacon and steaks that the government provided us in school lunches."

The market price of whale meat in 2009 was ¥2,060 a kilogram. The amount of whale meat sold at Tsukiji Market was about 220,000 kilograms in 2010 compared to about 1.8 million kilograms in 1980, the year before commercial whaling was banned. Revenues from whale meat have fallen from ¥6.4 billion in 2008 to ¥.5.4 billion in 2009 to ¥4.5 billion in 2010.

Much of the whale meat is not even consumed. Rather thousands of tons of it pile up in freezers. According to the Iruka and Kujira (Dolphin and Whale ) Action Network whale meat stockpiles reached a record high of 6,000 tons in September 2010. Stocks tend be at the highest in the summer after the whaling season off the northern coast of Japan is over.

In the 2000s, whale meat was reintroduced to school menus by the ICR, which sold it for a third of the market price. As of 2010, according to government survey, 5,355 primary and middle schools nationwide (18 percent of Japan’s primary and middle schools) served whale meat in school lunches, with schools in Wakayama and Nagasaki Prefecture serving it as a way to teach children about traditional foods. Greenpeace viewed the effort as an attempt to generate demand for whale meat.

In the 1950s and 60 the consumption of whale was around 2,000 grams per person, compared to around 50 today. An elderly dentist told the New York Times, "As a child we ate miso soup with whale meat every New's Year Day. It was a centuries-old tradition in my village. You can’t imagine how precious whale meat is to me.”

Eating Whale Meat in Japan

whaling shrine
Coco Masters wrote in Time: “Popping a bite of sea urchin into my mouth I look to the chalkboard at the far end of the sushi bar that lists the daily specials: young yellowtail tuna, mozuku seaweed, minke whale. The words for whale hang there in much the same way that a pig head stares back at you from the window of a Chinatown butcher shop.[Source: Coco Masters, Time, December 26, 2007]

“Typically, the whale’s so-called lean meat — from the breast and the tail — are served up. But whale isn't only served slathered with some kind of condiment or sauce. Gourmands can slurp a long, thin sashimi cut of raw minke breast meat — slippery like a fat noodle — with a hint of sesame oil in any of the half dozen or so restaurants in Tokyo that specialize in whale. Sliced whale cartilage is prepared as a "sunomono salad and prized for its distinctive not-quite crunchy texture," says Japanese food specialist and author Elizabeth Andoh. The salad looks like whitish, semi-translucent, crinkled straw wrappers on a bed of curly maroon and green seaweeds. Says Andoh: "Mouth-feel is very important to the enjoyment of Japanese food."

“Other preparations of whale hint at attempts to internationalize the meat: whale hot pots, as in Chinese-Mongolian cuisine where strips of meat are dipped in boiling soup; whale bacon (which can run as high as $145 a pound); Korean-style whale bi bim bap; and whale carpaccio. At a 2005 exhibition at the Kanazawa 21st Century Museum, all the dishes of a special dinner were prepared with whale meat. "The food was incredible," recalls one guest.

“The meat’s gamey quality, however, can be as much a turn off as some people’s revulsion to the thought of eating Shamu. And freezers in Japanese public schools are stocked with nearly four tons of unsold, mainly minke, whale meat, which the government has bought and provided for school lunches. Eventually, they will be turned into fish sticks or burgers. Outside of school cafeterias, Chefs try to reduce the gaminess with pepper, garlic, dried herbs, such as clove, coriander or cumin, and with fresh herbs, such as dill and chive. Tatsuta-age, in which whale is deep-fried, is a common preparation that is served with soy sauce and ginger.

“Yukio Hattori, better known as "Doc" to Iron Chef fans, prefers a recipe from the Showa period (that is, the 1926-1989 reign of Emperor Hirohito). He says a "roast cut" steak is best prepared after a good marinating in grated white onion, which tenderizes the meat, and then pan-fried with a little soy sauce. Hattori says that the price of the most prized part of the whale — the tail meat — is on par with that of Kobe beef, roughly $28 for 3.5 oz. (100 grams).”

Whales and Culinary Imperialism

Polls in the 2000s indicated that 56 percent of Japanese approve of eating whale, with support especially strong among men and people over 40. “Much of this support isn’t because people are pro-whaling or are willing to eat whale meat,” Atsushi Ischii, specialist in environmental policy at Tohuku University told the Los Angeles Times. “People are against the anti-whalers. They don’t like being told what to by outside groups.”

Yukio Hattori, president of Tokyo-based Hattori Nutrition College and a leading food critic who admits a weakness for whale, told Time: "Whales are cute. They are intelligent, genius creatures that endear humans to want to interact with them," he says, "But we are a fishing people. Whale hunting is a part of our culture-not just our food culture." [Source: Coco Masters, Time, December 26, 2007]

Many Japanese consider American, European and Australian criticism of eating whale to be "culinary imperialism." One whale meat lover told Time, "Japanese think it is strange that Americans hunt deer. But I don't tell Americans not to kill deer. Why should they ask us not to eat whale?" Other Japanese say that raising cattle in small enclosures with hormones and killing them with electric prods is much crueler than whaling. Another man told the New York Times, "We may eat whale but we also revere it. How can a total stranger tell us not to hunt whales without knowing how much this meat means to us?"

Even people who don’t like whale support the right of the Japanese to hunt whale, from the point of view that others don’t have the right to tell the Japanese what to do. One Japanese lawmaker told the BBC: “In Japan we have pet dogs. But we don’t tell the Koreans to stop eating dogs. Nor should people tell us to stop eating whale.”

Joji Morishita of the powerful government Fisheries Agency told the Los Angeles Times, “What would the Americans say if India suddenly said they should stop eating beef because the cow is special to their culture? That’s what is happening to us. “

Whale Products on Amazon, L.A. Restaurant Closure and Fin Whale from Iceland

whale at Hanada Airport in Tokyo

Jake Adelstein and Nathalie-Kyoko Stucky wrote in the Daily Beast:“Whale products are widely sold in Japan and it can cause problems when US firms inadvertently get involved in the business. In February of 2012, a report revealed that Amazon Japan, a subsidiary of Amazon Inc., was selling large numbers of cetacean food products. Activists called on the company and its CEO Jeff Bezos to implement an immediate and permanent global ban. The U.K. based Environmental Investigation Agency purchased eight whale products from Amazon Japan in 2011, including canned whale meat, whale jerky, whale bacon, and whale stew. Analysis revealed six of them to have mercury levels exceeding the Japanese national limit for mercury in seafood of 0.4 parts per million (ppm) and one had a staggering level of 20 ppm, about 50 times the safety limit. [Source: Jake Adelstein and Nathalie-Kyoko Stucky, Daily Beast, February 5, 2014]

DNA analysis of samples taken from minke, sei and fin whales served in restaurants in South Korea and the United States seems to indicate the whales were either purchased by Japan or killed by Japanese research whaling operations, In March 2010, a sushi chef at a restaurant in Los Angeles call the Hump was charged with illegally selling an endangered species product after people associated with the film “The Cove” help bust the restaurant for offering diners meat from a sei whale — an endangered species. Activists claim the meat came from Japan’s scientific whaling program. The restaurant was closed.

Finback whales are said t be particulalrly tasty. In 2010, according to to Kyodo news, an Icelandic whaling firm shipped 500 to 600 tons of finback whale meat to Japan, marking the resumption of full-fledged whale meat exports to Japan. The whaling firm Hvalur — Iceland’s largest — caught 148 finbacks with the Japan market in mind. Japan The meat from finbacks is said to be especially tasty. In 2010 year, 148 fin whales were killed off Iceland and 125 in 2009. In that time only two fin whales were caught by the Japanese, 4 percent of a 50-catch goal, according to the agency.

Kyodo reports that around 4,000 tons of whale meat, mainly from minke whales, is sold in Japan every year but supply is more than demand. The Icelandic fin whale meat is believed to impact the price of whale meat. CEO of Hvalur Kristján Loftsson is quoted as saying that the goal is not to push minke whale meat out of the Japanese market. He believes the fin whale meat from Iceland can have a positive effect on the market.

In 2014, Greenpeace reported that Japan imported 2,000 tonnes of frozen whale meat from Iceland .AFP reported: “Packages containing meat from fin whales were unloaded from a vessel that had travelled from Iceland to Osaka, western Japan, said Junichi Sato of Greenpeace Japan. The ship left Iceland in March carrying a cargo equivalent to almost all the whale meat imports from the north European country for the last six years, environment groups and news reports said.

Promoting Whale Meat in Japan

To keep the whaling industry alive the government subsidies the whale hunts and spends money trying to convince Japanese to eat whale meat. Japan subsidizes whale burgers and whale meat meals in schools. Children are encouraged to eat whale meat in colorful brochures entitled “Delicious Whales” that describe hunting them as a national heritage and say, “Even if we capture 2,000 whales a year for100 years, it’s okay because the whale numbers are growing.”

The Japanese whaling industry has said that it is important to boost demand for whale meat so that money will be available for research. It markets whale to restaurant chains that offer whale sashimi and fried whale and food processors that produce cooked whale and canned broiled whale. It is also markets whale meat to hospitals and universities. AFP reported that in 2013 that Japan’s whaling factory ship began producing certified halal-compliant whale meat for Muslim tourists.

In 2013 Japan’s launched a new advertising campaign to promote whale meat as a nutritious food that enhances physical strength and reduces fatigue. Japanese media reported that the campaign involved selling whale meat to soldiers to help boost their strength. As part of the campaign, about 7,000 brochures were distributed that featuring recipes such as whale meat sashimi and whale cooked with Chinese chives. [Source: Mark Willacy, ABC, June 2, 2013]

Pushing Whale Meat on School Children in Japan

In Wakayama Prefecture there has been an aggressive campaign to make whale a fixture in public school lunches. Nutritionists have developed an array of dishes such as whale meat meatballs, whale hamburgers, deep-fried marinated whale fillet that were offered in 339 schools in 2005. The moved has been widely supported by parents and teachers in the traditional whaling own of Shirahama.

Most young people have never tried whale. In an effort to get the younger generation interested in whale meat, free whale-meat sushi rolls are handed in places where young people hang out in Tokyo. A restaurant chain that added whale meat said they attracted few customers with it. One diner who tried some told AP, “To put it simply. Whale meat tastes horrible.” Other tactics have included taking elementary school students on field trips to watch the butchering of Baird’s beaked whales. The efforts has born little fruit. Over 4,000 tons of whale meat still lies is stored in freezers because no one wants to eat it.

Jake Adelstein and Nathalie-Kyoko Stucky wrote in the Daily Beast: “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. Wakayama and Nagasaki prefectures serve more whale meat than other regions in Japan, partly because both prefectures still have a whaling industry, which is heavily subsidized by the government. [Source: Jake Adelstein and Nathalie-Kyoko Stucky, Daily Beast, February 5, 2014]

Image Sources: 1) 4) 16) Ray Kinnane 2) BBC 3) Japan Whaling Association 5) 6) 7) 8) 9) 10) 11) 12) Institute of Cetacean Research 13), 14) 15) Greenpeace

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated August 2020

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