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Japan’s whale town struggles to keep 400 years of tradition alive

You don’t have to look far to find evidence of Wada’s ancient connection to whaling. Visitors to the city on Japan’s Pacific coast are greeted by a replica skeleton of a blue whale before entering a museum dedicated to the behemoths of the ocean.

At a local restaurant, diners eat fried whale chop and buy cetacean gifts at a neighboring gift shop. At the water’s edge is a wooden deck where harpooned whales are slaughtered before being sold to wholesalers and restaurants.

In 2019, when Japan withdrew from the International Whaling Commission (IWC) — the body that effectively banned whaling in the late 1980s — Wada welcomed the prospect of a return to commercial hunting and a popular reconnection with a food source that had coastal communities for 400 years.

But here and in other whaling towns in Japan, the resumption of killing whales for profit for the first time in more than three decades offers little cause for celebration.

Though condemnation by conservation groups has waned in the three years since the Japanese fleet left Antarctica, the country’s whalers face other obstacles: aging fishermen and ships, mysterious changes in cetacean behavior that may be linked to climate change, and a stubborn refusal by Japanese to eat enough whale meat to make them a profitable venture.

Although Japan circumvented the IWC ban by conducting limited “scientific” hunts in Antarctica, it had long argued that only a return to commercial whaling would ensure a stable supply of affordable meat and fuel a rebound in consumption.

“But all the evidence points in the opposite direction,” said Patrick Ramage, senior director for outreach and program collaboration at the International Fund for Animal Welfare. “Whether on the high seas under the pretense of science or in coastal waters for profit, Japan’s commercial whaling industry is an economic loser, sustained only by government subsidies.”

Ramage believes the future of Japan’s aging whale towns rests on embracing ecotourism. “Whale watching is an increasing contributor to local economies around the world, especially in locations previously involved in whaling. It is better for tourists to pay to see whales than for taxpayers to pay to keep hunting for livelihood.”

Fried whale meat cutlets at a restaurant in Wada. Photo: Justin McCurry

Barely 300 people in Japan are directly linked to whaling, while whales made up only about 0.1% of the country’s total meat consumption in 2016, according to government data. About 4-5,000 tons of whale meat enter the domestic market each year – the equivalent of about half an apple for each person.

But Yoshinori Shoji, the president of the Gaibo Hogei, a whaling company in Wada, said it was unthinkable to stop the coastal hunt. “I know it’s controversial in other parts of the world, but for us whales are just a source of food,” said Shoji, whose company has been processing whale meat for more than 70 years.

To keep the town’s whale culture alive, whale meat is served twice a year at local primary schools and children are invited to watch workers flake Baird’s beaked whales after they are harpooned and towed ashore, where they are left intact for 18 hours to ripen their flesh.

“Why shouldn’t we eat whale meat?” says Shoji. “People have always eaten the local wildlife. It depends on the environment. My job is to give people the opportunity to eat and appreciate locally caught whale meat. We are not forcing anyone to eat it.”

He shows chunks of frozen meat and blubber, some of which are sent to the northeast coast of Japan, where they are made into soup. On the roof of his factory, slices of Baird’s beaked whale turn black under the winter sun before being sold as a local delicacy reminiscent of beef jerky.

But Wada’s 30 employees in the whaling industry are struggling. During the April-October season last year they only caught nine whales and this year they have harpooned the same number so far. Shoji believes warmer seas have sent the whales farther north, while more frequent powerful typhoons have trapped the town’s two whaling boats in harbor for days.

Japan’s commercial whaling industry would grind to a halt without government subsidies of ¥5.1 billion (£0.033 billion) a year, said Junko Sakuma, a freelance journalist and expert on Japan’s whaling economy.

“The government has said it cannot go on forever softening what is believed to be a commercial concern,” she says. “When Japan left the IWC, fisheries officials thought they could catch as many whales as they needed to sustain the industry, but in fact it has shrunk. Japanese whaling will continue, but in a much smaller form.”

Paradoxically, the end of ‘scientific’ whaling and the annual clashes between the Japanese fleet and the anti-whaling organization Sea Shepherd could accelerate the decline of whaling. “In the past, the Japanese were defensive because they didn’t like white people telling them not to eat whale meat,” Sakuma says. “But whaling is barely mentioned these days by anti-whaling nations like Australia, Britain and the US. Now the Japanese have nothing to rebel against, so they may end up just forgetting whale meat.”