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    Is Japan Tiring of Whale Meat?

    Written by

    Derek Mead


    Commercial whaling has been banned since 1986 by the International Whaling Commission. But as anyone who’s watched Whale Wars knows, Japan has long circumvented that ban by catching whales for research purposes, which is still allowed.

    Of course, those specimens still show up for market via an institutional wink-and-nod system that basically means Japan’s whaling industry is commercial in all but name, and with the complexities of international politics, few governments have decided calling Japan out on it would be worth the political capital. So what’s to get Japan to stop skirting the ban? How about if people just stopped buying whale meat?

    According to a poll of 1,200 Japanese citizens by the Nippon Research Center, nearly 90 percent of respondents said they hadn’t purchased whale meat in the last year. Only two percent said they had bought whale meat more than twice.

    While 27 percent of respondents said they supported the whaling industry in some fashion, just 11 percent expressed “strong” support, while 18 percent opposed it. Interestingly, only 2.6 percent of peoples aged 15-19 said they felt strong support, a number that jumped to 18.9 percent among those aged 60-69. That’s a sign that—maybe—younger folks are losing interest in a meat that was a staple protein following World War II.

    But a whopping 55 percent of respondents said they didn’t feel one way or the other about the whaling industry, which suggest whaling isn’t exactly a hot-button issue in Japan. For example, I wouldn’t be surprised if a poll of the cattle industry in the U.S. had relatively smaller groups of supporters and opponents, and a whole bunch of people that don’t really care. Aside from people that are passionate one way or the other, many of us think of beef as something you find in the refrigerator aisle.

    That’s just me spitballing, but I don’t the survey absolutely shows that Japan is getting over eating whale. I bet a survey of eating whale meat would be more polarizing in the U.S., where it’d be considered something foreign, while I think Japan’s collective sigh suggests that many people don’t give a whole lot of thought to it. However, the survey is backed up by the very real fact that whale meat is not selling well. Again, it might be because it’s a luxury item in a depressed economy, but it does seem like people really aren’t too pumped on whale meat right now.

    Also, whale meat, being semi-illegal and all, isn’t cheap. Unlike post-World War II, it’s not being served in school lunches. So while it’s understandable that elderly folk support the industry, as its a tradition they grew up with, younger people might not care about whale meat because they never actually eat it. Why would a teenager strongly support the whale industry if she’s never had any connection to it?

    Still, the fact that kids aren’t growing up with whale meat, combined with the fact that it’s expensive, may mean that over time people give up wanting it. There’s also something to be said about how much negative attention it’s gotten in the last decade. And, sure, I’m sure people try it because they’re curious. But for a young person with no connection to whale meat growing up and a middling salary, springing for a product that’s widely reviled might not sound like fun. I, for one, am curious what lion meat tastes like, but I’m not so curious that I’m going to shell out for some dude’s publicity stunt.

    Still, the survey does offer some hope for the anti-whaling set. And not just there, either; the first thing I thought of was how high demand for ivory and rhino horn has made 2012 the worst year for poaching on record, despite ever-increasing enforcement. As I’ve said before, the only way to effectively kill an industry is to kill demand, which means taking a long view on publicity and awareness. It’s just one survey, but if Japan is losing its appetite for whale, perhaps other endangered animal products can shed buyers too.

    Image: Whale sushi, via the Australian.

    Follow Derek Mead on Twitter: @derektmead.