Least anyone has any doubts, Japan's whale hunt is meant for the dinner table, not the microscope. I'm in Tokyo this week where a colleague pointed out a slick, high-end restaurant in the heart of busy Shibuya that specializes in whale meat. The marquee translates as "The Original Whale Meat Restaurant" and features many classic whale meat dishes including a fixed-price meal for 4,000 yen.
Japan, Australia and New Zealand are currently embroiled in a political spat over whaling in Antarctic waters, with the two southern nations demanding that Japan halt its 'scientific' whaling activities. Japan has tried to hide under the cover of a loophole in the international whaling agreement by harvesting hundreds of whales for so-called research. Greenpeace subsequently uncovered a wide-spread scheme to illegally sell whale meat by whaling crews in Japan.
Nevertheless, I don't have a problem with Japanese eating whale meat. They've been doing this for centuries, and it was white men from Europe and North America who brought whales to the edge of extinction in the 1800s - not Japanese. When Admiral Matthew Perry first visited Japan in 1852, one of his goals was to open an American whaling station in the Northwest Pacific. His threat to use violence to achieve his aims still haunts Japanese-Western relations.
Traditional low-impact net whaling off the coast of Japan was a source of scarce protein in the 1800s.
In 1845, the American whaling ship Morrison visits Japan in hopes of opening modern, high-volume whaling stations there. Along with the Bible, they spread knowledge of the weapon of mass whale destruction, the harpoon, developed in Norway.
Westerners tend to look at their food through an uncorrected cultural lens. For instance, Japanese ranchers treat their cattle more humanely than we do on our mass feedlots. Japanese in general consume a lot less animal protein than we do in the West. And, when Japanese hunt whales, they use the entire animal, unlike 17th century Western whalers who were only after the oil and baleen. And when it comes to the extinctions of other animals, it is the West that bears a majority of blame.
That said, cattle are not endangered while many whale species are. We need a much better international agreement that allows for some whale harvesting by Finland, Iceland, Japan and Arctic tribes in the US and Canada while preserving the species — but let's not stop there. The seas are also being depleted of bluefin tuna, sea bass, cod, swordfish and sharks. We need to revisit the complex and grinding process of fisheries and marine mammal management on a global scale.
Addendum: Please see the NRDC's campaign to protest the sale of whale meat in the Japanese chain, Family Mart, operator of Famima!! stores in the US.