Japanese view whaling ban as endangering their version of steak

May 28, 1994|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,Tokyo Bureau of The Sun

TOKYO -- The International Whaling Commission believes whales are an endangered miracle of nature. But to Tanabashi Kiyohiko and millions of other Japanese, they're just another form of steak.

"Eating is culture," said the owner of Kujira-ya, or Whale Restaurant. "In China, they eat bugs and dogs. We think that is strange, but to the Chinese, we can't say, 'Don't eat.' "

The IWC's decision Thursday to create a whale sanctuary provoked more than just a few whale meat aficionados. The Japanese government also got involved, with the Foreign Ministry weighing in yesterday with official statements of regret.

Many Japanese see the ban as another form of Western cultural imperialism. Mr. Kiyohiko's family-owned business is almost four decades old, and he is indignant about the prospect of enforced change.

He characterized the decision by the IWC as "political, irrational, purely emotional and wrong."

In the short run, however, the IWC announcement spurred a surge of customers at Kujira-ya, located in the busy Tokyo

district of Shibuya.

"I wanted to try it while I still could," said John Weiner, a Californian working for Toyota, who had just polished off a plate of fried, broiled and sauted whale before tasting raw whale sashimi ordered by a patron at a neighboring table.

Mr. Kiyohiko has witnessed the new customers as he confronts dwindling supplies. Careful purchasing has left him with a vast, three-year stock of whale meat, but the future looks tough and he has reluctantly begun considering a menu change.

The Japanese government has tried to preserve this culinary tradition by arguing for carefully monitored, annual harvesting of certain whale species, particularly minke, the last species of great whales not decimated by overhunting. These are typically captured by Japanese fishermen in the Antarctic area that would be sheltered under the IWC motion.

The IWC voted 23-1 on Thursday -- with Japan as the lone dissenter -- to ban commercial whaling over 8 million square miles of ocean in the Southern Hemisphere, where more than 90 percent of the world's whales go to feed.

The commission has no power to enforce its rules, but its decisions carry weight. Some countries such as the United States have laws allowing retaliatory economic sanctions against nations that violate the commission's rules.

"If continuation of whaling would exhaust the sources, then Japan would be the first to stop it, but it is not," said Kishichiro Amae, deputy press secretary of the Foreign Ministry. "We don't know why there is [an] anti-whaling movement. What about cows, what about sheep, what about other animals?"

Whaling has been part of life in Japan for hundreds, perhaps DTC thousands of years. Until the late 1980s, thousands were caught annually. With each producing as much meat as 16 cows, the country had vast supplies.

Since then, 300 a year have been caught for government "research" with much of the meat ultimately reaching the retail market. Some reports show that additional whale meat is smuggled into Japan from other Asian countries.

Most fish stores in Tokyo have long given up selling whale because of the difficulty in obtaining it, and the expense.

At the Kujira Restaurant, prices are roughly in line with exorbitant prices at other Japanese fish restaurants, $12 to $50 for a plate, with most in the $20-$30 range. But years ago, Mr. Kiyohiko said, whale was inexpensive and his restaurant was a hangout for students and others of modest means.

Yet if whale meat has moved off of the college table, it has moved into the lecture hall.

"I can understand why others are worried," said Akiko Takeshita, a student at Sophia University in Tokyo, who has witnessed recent classroom debates about whaling, "but it is not like killing elephants for their tusks. It's a source of food. Very little goes to waste. And it is not like they will eat every whale until they are gone. They are very careful."

It is wrong, she added, for others to push their beliefs on Japan. "Japan has its own way of life."

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