Page last updated at 00:59 GMT, Monday, 15 March 2010

Culture clash over Japanese whaling

Clashes between Japanese whaling vessels and activists from the Sea Shepherd anti-whaling group have received global attention, but do not go down well in Japan, where whale meat is still considered a delicacy, as the BBC's Roland Buerk reports.

Girl eats a whale burger in Hakodate, northern Japan
Whale meat, once widely consumed, is now considered a delicacy in Japan

In the Taru-ichi restaurant in Tokyo's Shinjuku nightclub district, they are getting ready for another busy night.

There is no doubt about what is on the menu here: "Whales of the World" posters are the first thing customers see as they walk through the sliding door.

Shintaro Sato is the manager, running the business his father founded 40 years ago.

This evening he recommends whale sashimi [raw slices], deep-fried whale or whale stew.


As for the whale penis suspended from the ceiling, that is best eaten boiled with a side order of ginger, although Mr Sato admits the taste is "a little strange".

When it comes to anti-whaling activists like Peter Bethune, the Sea Shepherd captain brought to Japan and arrested by the coastguard after boarding a whaler in the Southern Ocean, he is uncompromising.

"They are terrorists, I think," he says. "Their purpose is money."

When we were growing up we didn't have ample food, so this was meat for us, our protein
Mitoshi Noguchi

A group of salarymen has ordered a plate of whale sashimi to share with their glasses of sake. They have chosen the restaurant for an office night out.

Like many other Japanese, Mitoshi Noguchi says he does not give whaling much of a thought.

The issue is discussed on Japanese television and in newspapers less than in countries where there is opposition to whaling like Australia.

But when he sees images of anti-whaling activists clashing with the Japanese fleet he is irritated.

For him there is nothing wrong with eating whale, it reminds him of school lunch.

"When we were growing up we didn't have ample supply of food, so this was meat for us, our protein," he says.

"So when we eat it now it's very reminiscent. It's delicious."

'Reality' check

Mr Noguchi is in late middle age, but on the same table is one of his much younger colleagues, Yoshitaka Takayanagi, born after the meat was phased out in Japanese schools.

Sea Shepherd activist Pete Bethune (file image)
Many in Japan see Pete Bethune as little more than a "terrorist"

Few Japanese eat whale regularly these days, especially the young, and he has only eaten it twice before.

"I think it's part of Japanese culture," Mr Takayanagi says.

"But I haven't had that many chances to try it. If it's becoming extinct we should not eat it. So I don't totally disagree with them [anti-whaling protestors].

"If I couldn't eat it I guess I could live without it."

While the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has been confronting Japanese whalers on the high seas, Greenpeace has been taking a different approach to end whaling.

It is trying to turn the take-it-or-leave-it attitude to whale meat among many young Japanese into outright opposition to whaling.

Most of the people, once they know about it, think this is not a science at all
Junichi Sato, Greenpeace

They have produced videos and held protests highlighting the cost to taxpayers of subsidising the annual whale hunt in the Southern Ocean, justified by Japan as scientific research.

"Japanese people need to know the reality of this so-called scientific research," says Junichi Sato, a Greenpeace programme director.

"Most of the people in Japan don't know that Japan is killing close to 1,000 whales a year in the Southern Ocean.

"Most of the people, once they know about it, think this is not a science at all. That's a start, that's why we need to feed information."

Meat trade

It was to try to draw attention to whaling that Junichi Sato and another Greenpeace member intercepted a box of whale meat at a courier company depot two years ago.

Junichi Sato displays a chunk of whale meat in Tokyo, Japan (15 May 2008)
Mr Sato wanted to prove whale meat was being sold on the black market

Crewmen, they claimed, had smuggled it from the taxpayer-subsidised whaling fleet to sell on the black market, with the connivance of the authorities.

They handed their evidence, very publicly, to prosecutors.

"They promised to have a proper investigation, but a month later they dropped it," says Mr Sato.

"On the very same day the Tokyo Metropolitan Police arrested us. They basically didn't prosecute the corruption in the government.

"They instead prosecuted the person who exposed the corruption."

Mr Sato and his colleague are on trial.

They hope to be cleared on the grounds they were acting in the public interest, but if convicted of theft could face up to 10 years in prison.

Peter Bethune, the Sea Shepherd activist brought to Japan, could yet face a trial too.

After his arrest he was led off the Shonan Maru 2 by the coastguard, the scene hidden from photographers with a blue plastic sheet.

He is being held on suspicion of trespassing on a vessel.

If charged and convicted he could be fined or imprisoned.

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