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Wednesday, 17 July, 2002, 11:12 GMT 12:12 UK
Dining out on a guilt trip
Pic of dead sperm whale
Would sir like that poached or boiled? ©ICR

"I only found this place by looking on an anti-whaling website where they had posted up the address, presumably for people to picket it," said Mike, an American tourist with no love of the conservationist lobby.

Kujira-Ya - which simply means The Whale Restaurant - is indeed a hard place to find but it is worth the effort.

Whalemeat, water cress and tofu
Whalemeat used to be a "poor man's food" but it is more expensive now
It is located in the heart of Tokyo's Shibuya district, a neon grove where Japanese teenagers meet up to compare shocking haircuts and make-up amid the incessant chirruping of mobile phones.

But once inside you leave behind the 21st Century and experience traditional Japan where one of the staple diets was kujira (whale).

As well as checking in your coat, you also need to leave behind the politically correct preconceptions which most foreigners bring with them about eating whale.

'Scientific' research

During World War II, commercial whaling was virtually impossible because the Pacific Ocean had become a war zone.

But General Douglas MacArthur, commander of the Allied Occupation Forces, gave permission for it to resume in order to alleviate the famine which engulfed post-war Japan.


Whalemeat... helped the Japanese people's health, growth and energy so that they made a remarkable recovery after World War II and built a strong economy

Dr Seiji Ohsumi
Dr Seiji Ohsumi, director general of the Institute of Cetacean Research, says whalemeat was a cheap and useful source of protein and he adds: "Up until the 1950s, 50% of all protein consumed by the Japanese was from the whale.

"Japanese schoolchildren were fed on whalemeat and it helped the Japanese people's health, growth and energy so that they made a remarkable recovery after World War II and built a strong economy."

But since the moratorium on commercial whaling was introduced in 1986, Japan is now only allowed to catch a small number of whales for scientific purposes.

Old recipes

After making scientific measurements and taking DNA samples from them, these whales are then frozen and taken back to Japan, where they are sold to restaurants and supermarkets.

Japanese diners eating in whalemeat restaurant
Whalemeat might be controversial but there is no doubting its taste
But only 4,000 tonnes of whalemeat enters the market nowadays compared with 220,000 tonnes in its heyday in 1962.

As a result of this restricted supply, whale is no longer a cheaper commodity but Dr Ohsumi denies it is a "delicacy" eaten only by the rich, as alleged by conservationists.

Shigeko Misaki, of the Japan Whaling Association (JWA), which picked up the tab for the meal, says: "In the West, whales were primarily killed for their oil and blubber but in Japan it was always for the meat.

"The American and British whalers used to throw away the meat but we wasted very little. The Japanese have names for 80 different parts of the whale and there are cooking recipes dating back to the Edo period (1603-1867).

In the pot

Whalemeat is most popular in western and southern Japan and Ms Misaki said: "The whale food culture is still very much alive in Japan."

My dinner at Kujira-ya consisted of a first course of whale sushi - the raw meat is a deep blood-red colour and tastes delicious, especially when dipped in ginger and soy sauce.

Graph showing size of whales
Whales vary enormously in size
For the main course, one member of the Tanahashi family, which owns the restaurant, brought up a small gas stove on which was placed a bowl of broth.

The idea was to use your chopsticks to pick up some whalemeat, watercress - grown only in the Kansai region of western Japan - mushrooms and tofu and drop them into the bubbling liquid.

When it has cooked for about five minutes, this dish is ready to eat, by which time the meat has turned brown and the cress looks and tastes more like spinach.

No trade

All in all, it is a fascinating and delicious experience - but then I guess animal rights campaigners would say that while whale, veal and paté foie gras may all be tasty, they are also morally unacceptable.

If you are wondering why whale is not on the menu at your local sushi restaurant, it is because trade in whalemeat is illegal between signatories of the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), which includes the UK and the US.

Sperm whale being measured
A sperm whale, captured by Japanese in the North Pacific, is measured ©ICR
Japan, Norway and Iceland are technically allowed to trade in it between themselves.

There were moves to export Norway's stockpiles of whale blubber to Japan - Norwegians do not eat blubber but the Japanese do - but it has been held up for political reasons.

But Greenpeace spokesman Richard Page claims that far from being good for you, whalemeat could actually be very dangerous.

He told BBC News Online: "Whales bioaccumulate toxic chemicals in their body fat and some species and populations may carry levels that could be harmful to human health."

See also:

17 Jul 02 | Science/Nature
24 May 02 | Asia-Pacific
23 May 02 | Asia-Pacific
29 Jun 02 | Asia-Pacific
19 Jun 02 | Science/Nature
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