On Whale Bacon, and changing attitudes toward whales as food in Japan

Whale bacon. (Jake Adelstein)

At the Daily Beast, Jake Adelstein writes about shifting cultural norms around the consuming of whales as food:

In the United States, serving whale meat can cost you decades of jail-time as one sushi chef in Los Angeles recently learned; in Japan it costs you about $10, for the whale tempura special (¥980). If you go to one of Tokyo’s most famous whale specialty restaurants, Ganso Kujiraya (The Original Whale Seller), on a weekday, you can sometimes have the raw whale sashimi set for the same price; it comes with fresh ginger, soy sauce, salad, a steaming bowl of rice, and soup. While you’re there, you can pick up some whale bacon too as a souvenir. And if you’re a kid enrolled in the Japanese public schools, your chances of getting to eat it in 2013 are twice as good as they were last year.

Apart from the many ethical and conservation arguments to be made for not killing and eating whales, there's this: their meat is very high in mercury.

As noted in his piece, Boing Boing has recently covered the story of a Japanese sushi chef in LA who's looking at a possible maximum sentence that amounts to life in prison for serving sushi from the endangered Sei whale.


  1. It doesn’t bother me that we eat sentients, but it bothers the hell out of me that we are preying on rare and beautiful creatures and poisoning their environment.  Whales should not be eaten or hunted until their population is in balance with ours (which will be approximately never at the rate we’re going).

    Man, I’ll probably get hate replies on this one too.  To reply in advance, I believe that all plants and animals have an equal “right to exist” and I consider those of you who make special cases for sentients to be bigots, OK?  The only reason eating dead people isn’t OK is that cannibalism spreads disease; I hope that after I’m dead some other organisms take nourishment from my remains and grow happy from it.

    1. Well, the “diseases” of dead bodies is over-stated, largely just leftover medieval “miasma” theory. 

      ANYHOW I tend to agree with you insofar as…exploiting endangered resources frivolously is irrational.  Whale sushi is a good example of this.  There are other reasons not to eat whales– brains, mercury, take your pick– but that is A reason.

      1.  Soylent green is people!

        Oh, btw, not so sure about miasma, but quite sure about prions. Have a look at “Kuru” on wikipedia.

          1. My friend Balderdash died of a prion disease contracted from beef, so I can’t be very jocular about it.  I’m still very upset at the way the USA has dealt with the issue – thank you Europe for banning US beef and forcing our government to actually do something about it.

            Edit: I’m perfectly OK with you making jokes about it, I just won’t be laughing.

          2. Sorry to hear about your friend; I more mean to be jocular about cannibalism– fictional, theoretical cannibalism– not very real diseases.

    2. That’s scavenging people, though, not hunting them for food. Doing that would at the very least ensure some awkward conversations should you ever get to talking.

      As to the rest, there was a quote I thought was interesting from Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea:

      And if Professor Toussenel is correct, this plague is nothing compared to the scourge that will strike our descendants once the seas are depopulated of whales and seals. By then, crowded with jellyfish, squid, and other devilfish, the oceans will have become huge centers of infection, because their waves will no longer possess “these huge stomachs that God has entrusted with scouring the surface of the sea.”

      The science may not be quite right, but it’s a reminder that people have seen for a long time that what we are doing with the oceans is stupid. Now we have the jellyfish and algal blooms to confirm it.

      1. Interestingly, new research has suggested that the “Jellyfish are taking over!” meme may be inaccurate. It suggests that the apparent increases in gelatinous zooplankton blooms may in fact be anomalies, coupled with increased attention paid to them and improvements in sampling methods (they were traditionally quite difficult to study or quantify, as they were destroyed by many plankton sampling methods, or not even counted). In my previous science life, I was a jellyfish researcher, and even attended an international conference on Jellyfish blooms. 

  2. The Cove had a bit about this. Political influence of whaling areas get government money to support a market that would’ve died out long ago. Whale meat is not something the average Japanese person eats or seeks out. I’ve eaten some weird stuff in Japan, but have never even come across even the opportunity to eat whale meat (unless it was faked as something else, also covered in the movie).

    1. If you’ve never come across the opportunity to eat whale meat, then you’ve never worked in a public school in Japan. My school served up whale for school lunch just last week.

      1. Never worked at one, but went to a grade school one summer.  Come to think of it, I vaguely remember my classmates laughing at me during lunch one day…

      2. As a kid I saw one of those awful films in grade school.  With the bad music and stuttering voice over. One about the whale industry. When they mentioned that in Japan whale meat was served to school kids and prisoners, that’s all my 7 year old self needed to know.  A valuable source of protein… for those with no choice in the matter.

  3. Facing life in prison for serving an endangered species as a meal? Good to know we have our priorities straight. 

    No, I’m not being sarcastic. Good to know we have our priorities straight.

    1. I agree that this case was completely overblown.  Serving whale meat is against the law for a good reason and I agree with forbidding it here but the punishment dealt in this case is just unconscionable.  To remove a member of society who poses no threat to life or property in his community and locking him away for life is truly repugnant.  If a penalty is to be dealt, let it be proportional and fair.  Whales are beautiful animals but I don’t condone destroying a man’s life for having purchased it and served it.

    2. @JohnQPublic

      From what I understand, he’s not facing those charges for serving whale meat, which isn’t that much of a crime (sadly), he’s facing it for conspiracy, lying to the feds, and a whole lot of other attempts at covering it up. That’s where these charges come from, and “life” is the harshest possible sentencing that he will likely NOT get.

      I would like to see more punishment for the person who was supplying him. Also, I don’t think it’s crazy to seriously punish somebody for contributing to the even possible extinction of a species. That’s potentially robbing all future generations of humans of an amazing animal. A crime against humanity imho. This was not a cultural misunderstanding, both of these guys knew it was illegal and exactly why, and sought to profit from it. I have little sympathy.

      1.  And he’s not realistically facing 50 years of prison time – that may be the maximum possible sentence, but from everything I’ve heard he’d be unlikely to get more than a token sentence if it goes to trial and he loses.

  4. I’m a marine biologist with my training in oceanography, currently working in fisheries science and natural resource management, and I find the increasing availability of whale meat in Japan interesting, if not entirely unexpected. I’ve always been uncomfortable with the efforts of groups like “Sea Shepherd” to harass and persecute Japanese whaling ships, not because I think that whales should be hunted (I don’t) but because there’s nothing like that sort of persecution to feed nationalistic and reactionary sentiment. I’ve posited for years that such high-profile shaming/attacks (especially since the syndication of “Whale Wars”) would backfire, instead stimulating an increase in the consumption of what had previously been a sort of anachronistic curiosity, as the result of a sense of nationalistic solidarity. A similar thing happened in my home of Newfoundland in the 1970s and 80s relating to the seal hunt; the constant depiction of Newfoundlanders as barbarians and monsters in the media led to an increase in consumption of seal by people who would have otherwise never have touched it. Often, people would go out of their way to support the industry as a result. That’s not to say with certainty that this is what’s driving any increase in Japan, but it’s certainly something to consider. 

  5. life in prison for serving sushi from the endangered Sei whale.

    So much for that whale restaurant I always wanted to open: “Call me Ishmael”

  6. Keep in mind too that DNA testing has shown that the species of whale meat for sale in Japan is often incorrect and included endangered species.

  7. I have eaten whale while visiting native communities in the Alaskan arctic where they hunt marine mammals for subsistence.  The animal is viewed with respect, and they hold a belief that the whale gives itself to the hunters to feed the community.  Whaling crews that bring home a whale share the meat with the entire community (for free).  Under this sort of natural, non-commercial system, it’s sort of nice to think how only one life is sacrificed to feed many.

      1. I had it both raw and cooked.  Sort of like tuna-y beef.  A little metallic.  Actually, I thought it was quite tasty.  I tried some muktuk (blubber and skin) too.  Nice flavor, but eating solid fat isn’t really my thing.
        I feel like such a horrible person…

    1. More or less that whales are too smart to allow hunting them.  This need not simply be a bias towards intelligence the way Ito dismisses it, though, but recognition of how it complicates things.

      Essentially, it creates opportunities for new levels of damage.  Hunting inherently means harming individuals at the time.  With animals that have close-knit family groups and good memories, though, you now also have the possibility of lasting trauma in the survivors.

      For whales it goes a step more, since they have at least some level of culture, like dialects.  It’s not hard to imagine sustained hunting could have some lasting effect on these, and disrupt or wipe out cultural groups even if the species is not threatened.

      I don’t know how serious you think these might be, but they definitely make animals like whales or gorillas a different case.

  8. I had some whale while I was in Japan, and I can say that, while whale bacon is edible, whale sashimi is just fucking disgusting.    Imagine, if you will, a slice of raw, gamy, oily red meat with a kind of rancid fishy flavor on top of it, tough enough that you have to chew it into an undifferentiated mass of gristle before you can swallow.

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