After struggling for years to promote their products amid protests from conservationistsa Japanese whaling operator found a new way to attract customers and increase sales: vending machines whale meat.
The Kujira (Whale) Shop, a staffless outlet that recently opened in the port city of Yokohama near Tokyo, has three machines for whale sashimi, whale bacon, whale skin and whale steak, as well as meat canned whale Prices range from 1,000 to 3,000 yen ($7.70 to $23).
The outlet features white vending machines decorated with cartoon whales and is the third branch to launch in the Japanese capital region. It opened on Tuesday after two others opened in Tokyo earlier this year as part of Kyodo Senpaku Co’s new sales campaign.
Whale meat has long been a source of controversy, but sales at the new vending machines are off to a good start, the operator said. Anti-whaling protests have subsided since Japan ended its much-criticized Antarctic research hunts in 2019 and resumed commercial whaling off the Japanese coast.
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Conservationists worry the move could be a step toward more whaling.
“The problem is not the vending machines themselves, but what they can lead to”said Nanami Kurasawa, director of the Iruka & Kujira (Dolphin & Whale) Action Network.
Kurasawa stressed that the whaling operator is already seeking permission to increase its catches and expand whaling outside designated waters.
Kyodo Senpaku hopes to install vending machines in 100 retail outlets across the country within five years, company spokesman Konomu Kubo told The Associated Press. A fourth will open in Osaka next month.
The idea is to install vending machines near supermarkets, where whale meat is not usually available, to develop demand, a crucial task for the industry’s survival.
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Major supermarket chains have all but stayed away from whale meat to avoid protests from anti-hunting groups and are remaining cautious even as harassment from activists has subsided, Kubo said.
“As a result, many consumers who want to eat it cannot find or buy whale meat. We launched vending machines in unstaffed stores for those consumers.”he explained.
Company officials say sales at the two Tokyo locations have been significantly higher than expected, keeping staff busy replenishing products.
At the store in Yokohama’s Motomachi district — a posh shopping area near Chinatown — customer Mami Kashiwabara, 61, went straight for her father’s favorite whale bacon. To her disappointment, she was exhausted and had to settle for frozen onomi, oxtail meat that is considered an exotic delicacy.
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Kashiwabara says she is aware of the whaling controversy, but notes that it brings back childhood memories of being eaten at family dinners and school lunches.
“I don’t think it’s good to wantonly kill whales. But whale meat is part of Japanese culinary culture and we can respect the life of whales by appreciating their meat.”Kashiwabara commented. “I would be happy if I could eat it”.
Kashiwabara explained that she planned to share a 3,000 yen ($23) regular-size slice with her husband, carefully wrapped in a freezer bag over sake.
The meat comes mainly from whales caught off the northeast coast of Japan.
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Japan resumed commercial whaling in July 2019 after withdrawing from the International Whaling Commission (IWC), ending 30 years of what it called research whaling, an activity criticized by conservationists as a cover to cover up the whaling. commercial banned by the CBI in 1988.
Under commercial whaling in its exclusive economic zone, Japan caught 270 whaling last year, less than 80% of the limit and less than the number it actually caught in Antarctica and the Pacific Northwest as part of its research program.
The decline was due to fewer minke whales being found along the coast. Kurasawa says the reason for the under-harvesting should be examined to see if it is related to overhunting or climate change.
While conservation groups have condemned the resumption of commercial whaling, some see it as a way to allow the government’s embattled and expensive whaling program to adapt to changing times and tastes.
In a show of determination to keep the whaling industry alive for decades to come, Kyodo Senpaku will build a new 6 billion yen ($46 million) mother ship to be launched next year to replace the aging Nisshin Maru.
But the uncertainty remains
Whaling is losing support in other whaling nations such as Iceland, where only one whaler remains.
The whales may also be moving away from Japan’s coasts due to a shortage of saury, a staple in their diet, and other fish possibly due to the impact of climate change, Kubo said.
Whaling in Japan involves just a few hundred people and one operator and accounted for less than 0.1% of total meat consumption in recent years, according to data from the Fisheries Agency.
Still, conservative ruling lawmakers strongly support commercial whaling and the consumption of their meat as part of Japan’s cultural tradition.
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Conservationists claim that whale meat is no longer part of the daily diet in Japan, especially in younger generations.
Whale meat was an affordable source of protein during Japan’s malnourished years after World War II, with annual consumption peaking at 233,000 tons in 1962.
The whale was quickly replaced by other meats. The supply of whale meat fell to 6,000 tons in 1986, a year before the IWC-imposed moratorium on commercial whaling banned hunting of several species of whales.
Under research whaling, criticized as a cover for commercial whaling because the meat was sold on the market, Japan caught up to 1,200 whales a year. Since then, he has drastically reduced his catch after protests escalated internationally and the supply and consumption of his meat plummeted in the country.
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The annual supply of whale meat fluctuated between 3,000 and 5,000 tons, including imports from Norway and Iceland. The amount fell further in 2019 to 2,000 tons, or 20 grams (less than 1 ounce) of whale meat per person per year, according to Fisheries Agency statistics.
Whaling authorities have attributed the decline in supply in the past three years to a lack of imports due to the coronavirus pandemic, and plan to nearly double this year’s supply with imports of more than 2,500 tonnes from Iceland.
Japan has managed to have the only remaining whaler in Iceland hunt fin whales exclusively for shipment to the Asian country, whaling officials said. Iceland caught only one minke whale in the 2021 season, according to the IWC.
Criticizing the export from Iceland to Japan, the International Fund for Animal Welfare stated that “opposes all commercial whaling because it is inherently cruel”.
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With an uncertain outlook on imports, Kyodo Senpaku wants the government to raise Japan’s annual catch quota to levels that can supply around 5,000 tonnes, something Kubo describes as the threshold for sustaining the industry.
“From a long-term perspective, I think it will be difficult to maintain the industry at current supply levels”Kubo said. “We must expand both supply and demand, which have been reduced.”
With extremely limited supply, whale meat processing cannot be a viable business and may not exist for generations to come, he added.
Yuki Okoshi, who began offering whale meat dishes at his Japanese-style seafood restaurant three years ago — when higher-quality whale meat was available through commercial hunting — hopes supplies will stabilize.
Okoshi believes that “the future of the whale industry depends on whether customers need us” and that whale meat restaurants could be the key to survival.
“Whaling may be a political issue, but the relationship between the restaurant and our customers is very simple”Okoshi stated. “We serve good food at reasonable prices and the customers are happy. That’s all”.
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