On the island of Ikitsuki at the southern tip of Japan, a certain cut of meat is served up raw or cooked into a variety of dishes, just as it has been for centuries.
Rich in iron, fat, and protein, the local delicacy can be found in many restaurants on the island, and has been served in school lunches nationwide.
It’s not beef or fish—but whale. And its continued presence in the Japanese diet has global activists and conservationists fuming. Living in Japan, and seeing it sold and eaten nationwide, I decided to research why the Japanese cling to this practice.
On a recent trip to Nagasaki Prefecture, I visited the Ikitsuki Island Museum to find out more about whaling. The island was once one of Japan’s largest whaling ports.
But first, I ate lunch at a local seaside restaurant. Whale meat was all over the menu, from sashimi to Nagasaki champon—a local favorite sautéed noodle dish mixed in with veggies and seafood.
It wasn’t the first time I’ve seen whale meat served, and while it was uncomfortable for me to witness, I tried to put my cultural background aside. My hosts ordered whale sashimi for our table, and I didn’t want to offend them before the interview, or let the food go to waste, so I made an attempt to eat what was served.
According to curator and museum historian Shigeo Nakazano, whale meat wasn’t always so widely available.
“Whale meat was at first eaten by aristocrats in Kyoto, and commercial whaling began in Japan in 1570 with ships from the Ise Bay in central Japan. Due to its richness in nutrients, its popularity spread, and by 1603 it had reached Ikitsuki in the Saikai Area in the south. Saikai is located on the ocean route whales historically used to travel south to north, and here, whaling flourished.”
The Edo period (1603-1868) ushered in the development of Japanese food culture, but not because leaders thought it was important to preserve. They were trying to prevent people from starving.
“Japan closed off the country and remained isolated for 250 years, with little to no connection to the outside world,” says Nakazano. “The Shogun leaders had a population of over ten million people to feed. They couldn’t get their protein from only eating rice. Because of this, Japan learned to take advantage of its island status [by fishing everything they could,] and successfully developed a culture for self-sustainability, and the population nearly doubled.”
The traditional foods became rooted in the next period, the Meiji Era (1868-1912. “Whale meat was a natural addition to the menu,” he says.
While many other proteins are now popular in Japan, whales are still revered in culture and mythology, held in the highest regard among the sea animals that are eaten. Animals and spirits of the deceased are prayed to as gods in Japanese religion.
The whale was and still is held in particularly high esteem for the abundance of resources that could be extracted from just one creature. There are statues of whales all over temple grounds across the nation. According to Nakazano, “The villagers prayed out of gratitude for the provided resources, remorse for the loss of life necessary to feed the people, and out of hope that they would continue to return.”
No part of the whale was ever wasted and one whale could feed an entire village. At the hunt, a prayer was uttered three times to ensure that the whale’s soul would find its way to paradise before hunters took its life. Hunters even honored mother whales that were killed with calves in their womb, burying the unborn sea mammals under a statue of the god, Jizo—the same place where human stillborn babies are buried by tradition.
But whaling proved to be unsustainable on a global scale. European, North American, who hunted for the whale’s oil, competed with Asian whalers. This eventually depleted the species in their own regions, and the Antarctic Ocean became hunting grounds for every country that had overfished in their local territory.
Overfishing by multiple countries spurred an international ban on commercial whaling by the International Whaling Commission in 1986. But there’s a bit of a loophole— countries can still hunt them for “research,” according to Article VIII of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whales.
Many claim that the research Japan is undertaking isn’t scientific enough. After a case brought by Australia, the International Court of Justice ruled in 2014: “Japan had failed to address a variety of Australia’s concerns, including whether nonlethal methods could be used to collect data rather than lethal methods.” Member states of the IWC have also raised objections to Japan’s recent proposals to amend the convention to allow small-type coastal whaling, but Japan has decided to move forward, despite the ruling.
Meanwhile, there has been criticism from within the country over how much the Japanese government is subsidizing whale hunts and whether it remains as popular to eat as it once was.
Interestingly, whale conservation efforts have been largely successful in some locations. According to a recent study by the University of Vermont and Duke University, “The population of humpback whales off western Australia has grown from fewer than 300 individuals in 1968 to 26,000 today.” According to the IWC estimate table, their rate of increase has been 10 percent a year.
The success of conservation isn’t necessarily a call to resume commercial hunting. The oceans are getting warmer and the future of every species living in the water, not just whales, is at risk. Any change to the ecosystem either in the form of hunting or population increases should be viewed with caution and careful research.
Ari Beser is a Fulbright-National Geographic digital storyteller, currently eating and living in Hiroshima. He is the author of Nuclear Family, a part-memoir, part-history book about nuclear survivors. He tweets @AriBeser and Instagrams @aribeser.