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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Whale Meat

Air Date: Week of

The United States is up in arms about Japan’s insistence on hunting whales. Host Laura Knoy talks with Tom Reid, former Tokyo bureau chief for the Washington Post, about the Japanese love of whale meat.


KNOY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy. Japan has raised the ire of the international community by increasing the number of whales it hunted. The fleet has so far this season landed 40 minke, 43 brides , and five sperm whales. Meat from these whales, caught on what are called scientific expeditions, is sold as a delicacy in Japanese markets for prices up to $200 a pound. In response, the United States has denied Japan fishing rights in U.S. waters, boycotted Asian environmental meetings, and is threatening economic sanctions. Joining me to talk about this is Tom Reid. He is the former Tokyo bureau chief of the Washington Post, and a long-time resident of Japan. Tom, what's behind this dispute between Japan and the U.S.?

REID: Many Americans genuinely believe that this is a beautiful animal that's endangered, and therefore, it's awful to kill and eat it. As long as the Japanese were only killing minke whales, which there are a lot of on Earth, the U.S. was willing to kind of put up with it. But now the Japanese have decided they're going to kill a small number of bride whales and a small number of sperm whales, and we don't have as good a count of those species of whales. And I think the U.S. has taken a position, doggone it, you know, that population may not be safe. So stop it.

KNOY: Why are the Japanese willing to stand up against the world and say we want to hunt whale?

REID: Well, I think there are a couple of things. For one thing, they have this sense of tradition. They've always done it, their great-grandfathers did it. I think another thing , as a Japanese fellow explained it to me once, the Japanese kill and eat about 400 minke whales every year, and Americans go crazy about this. Americans kill and eat about 10,000 elk every year; the Japanese think the elk is a lovely animal. They would never dream of eating it. But they're not sending, you know, environmental groups to America blasting us as killers. So, I think part of it is, we don't have any right to tell them what to eat.

KNOY: So, Tom, is there a deep cultural identity with the whale? Or is it more, hey, you can't tell us what to do?

REID: There is a deep cultural identity with the whale in the same sense that a very small group of Americans have a cultural identity with killing and eating seals up in Alaska. It's a tiny little portion of Japan and a tiny little portion of the population even in those villages has a cultural affinity for this. I think it's more the notion, what we're doing is sanctified by the scientific committee, the International Whaling Commission, and we don't want a bunch of international environmentalists pushing us around.

KNOY: You know, Tom, I read that during World War II whale meat was very important to the Japanese diet. I wonder if part of the push comes from older Japanese who learned to love it during those lean years after World War II and are still attached to the taste.

REID: Love it? They ate it because it was a source of food and they didn't have any food. I mean, people were eating silkworms back then just to get any kind of meat. That was a really starving country. It was used up in northern Japan in school lunches because it was an available form of protein. But I've never known any Japanese person who was dying for a piece of whale. I mean, it's kind of an exotic taste. It's not a common thing at all.

KNOY: What does whale meat taste like?

REID: I've had whale. It tastes like some generic fish. It's very fishy. The whale that I had was pretty tough. It was hard to chew. And not worth going out of your way for.

KNOY: How do they cook it?

REID: Cook? Oh, come on. No, no, no. It's raw. You eat it as sashimi or on sushi. They may cook it but, you know, the Japanese feel that if you spend a lot of money for a really good piece of fish or whale, as the guy said to me once, "I don't understand you Americans. You take this delicious tuna and then you fry it up with pepper and lemon. You can't taste it any more." No, you just eat it.

KNOY: Tom, do the Japanese feel that there's a racist element to all this?

REID: Yeah, they definitely think that. They think that if they were blond Christians that nobody would be on their case. I never bought this argument when I was over there. I mean, I'm American and most Americans don't feel any racist disregard for Asians. But I'll tell you this. I live in Britain now, and there is a very strong anti-whaling campaign here. And all the posters and brochures you see talk about Japanese whaling, and they always show Japanese whalers, they are the killers. They never mention Norway and Iceland, which they kill more whales than Japan does. But, of course, they're blond Christians. So maybe the Japanese have a point.

KNOY: Tom Reid is former Tokyo bureau chief for the Washington Post and a long-time resident of Japan. He's author of "Confucius Lives Next Door." Tom, thanks a lot for talking with us today.

REID: Thank you, Laura. It was fun.



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