Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Friday, June 24, 2005

Gastronomic Research on a Cetacean Scale

Whalemeat has been included in Japanese cuisine for centuries. No matter how chronically materialistic today's consumer culture has become, the Japanese continue to have that element of stubborn traditionalism. The very idea of eliminating even such a relatively insignificant item from the historical menu is met with disbelief if not outright hostility.

On the other hand, if that item can be repackaged and sold in a new and different way, chances are it'll become "hip" very quickly.

Japan has observed the international whaling ban, but only grudgingly and only if a small catch of Minke whales is allowed every year for "scientific study". Not long ago, the Japanese government, bowing to public pressure, pressured the IWC to start allowing low-level whaling again. They were rebuffed. The government is saying that they will continue the fight, but for now they will merely restrict themselves to the "research" quota.

It's amazing how much of that "research" ends up on the dinner table. It's also interesting just how sensitive the Japanese are about the issue. Its a topic that comes up from time to time in conversations I'm involved in. I am told again and again how baffled the Japanese are that whaling is restricted in the first place. "If they are there, we should be able to hunt them," is the gist of what they usually say. I also hear a lot of very smug, "If Americans actually tried eating whale meat once, they would get rid of the ban."

On several occasions I have had Japanese friends, acquaintances, and coworkers try to get me to try whale meat (i.e. pointedly scheduling a "mandatory" party at a restaurant in Kashima that still somehow specializes in "research-based" cuisine). Most of the time, if I find out in advance what's up, I simply bow out of the dinner party as a matter of principle. Once, however, while on a music-related trip somewhere, the hotel restaurant included whale sashimi in our meal. After I'd had more than a few drinks, I gave in and tried a piece.

Amazingly, it had little if any flavor at all. It was like eating vinyl.

"Yes, that's right," said a very enthusiastic man at our table in an I-told-you-so tone of voice. "It doesn't have much taste at all. That's what's so wonderful about it. It's SO easy to eat!"

I replied by saying something like, "Water has even less taste, and it's even easier to consume. Why not just stick with that?"

They ignored me.

Well, whale meat is back with a vengeance, it would seem. A Japanese fast-food chain has put whale meat burgers on its menu, and they claim they are selling like hot cakes. I would definitely call that some very sound "scientific study". I particularly like this line:

"We fry minke whale meat and the burger really tastes like beef," manager Miku Oh said.

This brings up the question: "If the taste of beef is really so ideal, why not just eat beef instead, since it's cheaper and more readily available?"

Especially since whale meat is higher in fat!

Then again, beef isn't a traditional part of the Japanese diet; it's a Western import. Moreover, the Japanese government is still reluctant to ease its bans on imported beef, whereas they're determined to get the rest of the world to understand their terminal need to hunt whales.


Politics, science, tradition, and the stomach. They make for a truly vile combination. As for me, I think I'll stick with fish and chicken.


  • Ironically, meat from cetaceans sold in Japan contains over 5 times the "safe" amount of mercury and neary 4 times the "safe" amount of methylmercury by the Japanese government's own standards.

    The "tradition" is obviously bad for the cetaceans, but also for the humans who eat them.

    I think the real underlying tradition is more widespread. It's called greed.

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 10:43 AM  

  • I think I will stick with my spotted owl dumplings...whale is too rare.

    Maybe they are Mad as Hatters. Mad as Hatters.

    By Blogger Don Snabulus, at 3:14 PM  

  • As with a couple of your blogs, your information and lack of research shows how little you actually know about the subject.

    Japan observing the international whaling ban? That's a joke right? If it was, you need to work on your delivery. The FACT is, Japan allows over 1000 whales to be killed annually for "scientific purposes" as long as every possible part of the whale is not wasted. In other words, we've limited our killing to 1000 a season, even if the species is on the endangered list, as long as you send the whale meat home to sell to the public.

    The most popular way whale meat is cooked is by frying. The meat tastes like venison or a sweet beef. As sashimi, it's served with wasabe sauce and horseradish, you couldn't possibly taste what the whale tastes like with all that on it.

    Yes, the Japanese are traditionalist. However that has nothing to do with serving whale meat. Japan doesn't care if something is about to go extinct. They do care about the money. In today's Japan, everything has to do with money, and lots of it.

    With the international whaling meeting just a few weeks away, this year I hope they stop Japan from their so called science projects and call a complete moritorium against any whale killings.

    No, I'm not some Green Peace fanatic. But I am getting really tired of mankind not giving a damn about the creatures we share this planet with! They were here before we were. We have no right to kill them off to extinction. They do not harm us and they do not harm the environment. They are killed strictly for the money they will bring. Greed is never the answer to ANYTHING. It can only lead to trouble, the kind of trouble that gets people killed.

    With nearly 200 countries on this planet, only 1 kills 1000 plus whales per year. Many of those other countries are going to get real tired of Japan ... again. The last time that happened, it wasn't good for Japan. The next time won't be good either.

    By Blogger Michael, at 8:49 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home