Scientific Slaughter – Japan and the Whales

Whale Meat Shop at Tsukiji MarketsJapan has been hunting and eating whales for centuries. And continues to do so today. Despite the political guise of whaling for scientific purposes, much of the blood red whale meat ends up in Japan’s fish markets and supermarkets for public consumption. Is Japan justified in whale hunting and being unfairly attacked by crackpot greenies, or are they really as cruel and inhumane as the Western news reports make out? Whichever side you are on, the fact remains that Japan’s “bi-product” of its scientific research program ends up on the plates of Japanese consumers, and is still an extremely lucrative market. We at went to Tsukiji Fish Markets in Tokyo to get graphic evidence of whale on sale. The shopkeeper was even kind enough to point out which whale he was researching on his “Whales of the World” poster (Click on image to see an enlarged version). The Catch of the Day was Fin Whale on that particular day. Without siding with either the greenies or the Japanese, let us introduce you to the background of this issue, with some real facts. You decide for yourself which side of the fence you are on, and if you feel like letting us know, leave a comment at the bottom of the article.

Whaling Cultures in Japan and the West:
Japan’s recorded history of whale hunting goes back to the Jomon Era (縄文時代, from around 10,000 BC to 300 BC), with archaeologists having found hand spears etc from this time. However according to historians, whaling on an organized scale began in Japan in the early 1600’s. The traditional name for “whale” was “isana” (勇魚), meaning brave fish. Whale meat was a delicacy served at special occasions and festivals.

During the same period, whaling was becoming popular in Western Europe, especially in England where whale fat was burned to fuel street lights, and whale oil was used in Rolls Royce gearboxes. This created an increased demand for whales, and hunting on a global scale began during this period. (Think “Moby Dick”, the 1851 tale of the heroic Englishman captain who leads his crew on the hunt for the mighty whale.) In fact one of the objectives of early migrants from England to New Zealand and the Pacific was to search for new whale resources to sell back into Europe.

Following the invention of the light bulb (replacing the street light), efforts in whaling dropped somewhat in the West, which never had a culinary whale culture. Although it continued in other countries including Japan, and the 200 years from 1770-1970 became retrospectively known as the Era of Excessive Fishing (乱獲時代), or the Whaling Olympics (鯨オリンピック). It was during this period that Blue Whales (シロナガスクジラ) and Southern Right Whales (セミクジラ) were fished to dangerously low levels, which sparked the cultural clash between Japan and the West that began in the 1970’s and continues to today.

The Save the Whales Movement of the 1970’s:
humanwhales.jpgEnter US popular culture and Christian righteousness in the form of Olivia Newton-John and the 1970’s “Save The Whales” campaign. This was perhaps Greenpeace’s most successful campaign, and is rightly credited with aiding the ailing Southern Right Whale population back to sustainable levels. Greenpeace made extensive use of new media, such as television, and Hollywood stars to gain support for their movement. Unfortunately, while they could have stuck with the facts such as “some species of whales are on the brink of extinction!” and been just as successful, they also took a populist angle stating that “whales are intelligent animals, and should not be killed!” This took strong hold in especially the US which did not have a whaling history, and the image of a whale became synonymous with saving endangered animals. And although the populations of endangered whale have been greatly restored, this image continues in the West today, and is center of the commercial whaling battle being fought through the International Whaling Commission.

The International Whaling Commission:
The IWC (国際捕鯨委員会) was founded in 1946 under the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (国際捕鯨取締条約) to regulate, in a commercial context, whaling and whale populations by preventing over-fishing of whales. It was initially signed by 15 counties, and Japan was not involved (we suspect it had more serious matters to deal with in 1946.) This body effectively watches over commercial whaling to ensure the sustainability of whale stockpiles. It was not founded on the presences of conservation.

In the 1960’s, countries such as England and Holland which had been strong whalers, finding decreasing returns from commercial whaling, gave up the industry completely, and started putting more efforts into conservation. The number of countries pushing for a complete ban on commercial whaling grew dramatically during the 1970’s partly thanks to Greenpeace and the Save the Whales effort.
In 1982, the IWC determined that there was not sufficient scientific data on the population numbers and environmental conditions of various whale species, and in a majority vote, voted in favour of a commercial whaling moratorium, banning the commercial hunting of whales. This was implemented in 1986, and still stands today.

(There are over 70 species of whales in the world. However, the IWC only watches over 12 species. These IWC whales (as they are called) are Minke, Blue, Fin, Sei, Bryde’s and Humpback which are baleen whales, the Sperm and Bottenosed which are toothed whales, as well as the Beluga, Narwhale, Baird’s beak and Pilot whales which are in fact dolphins (or from the Delphinapterus family.)

Scientific Whaling:
The 1982 moratorium caused outrage in traditional whaling countries such as Japan, Norway and Iceland, who have never really agreed with this and have all looked to exploit loopholes. Specifically, the ICRW states that “contracting Governments may grant to any of its nationals a special permit authorizing that national to kill, take and treat whales for purposes of scientific research”. From 1982, Japan and Norway halted their commercial whaling and began killing whales under the provision for scientific whaling.

Since 1994 however, Norway has abandoned the claim of “science” and has openly called its whaling “commercial”, which the country is allowed to do because it filed an official objection when the moratorium was first put in place.

lunch.gifJapan however did not do so, and has taken a more condescending stance towards the moratorium, and continued to fish under the name of scientific research, officially to obtain data on population numbers, age and sex makeup, and natural death rates. Japan states that the quality of its research research results are thought of as high quality. And the logic behind the meat being sold in the consumer market is the whale meat not used in research should not be wasted, and is sold to prevent waste, as well as to fund further research. In other countries carrying out scientific research, this meat is thrown out. (A kilo of whale meat costs about 2500 yen wholesale, with the choicest cut, part of the tail, costing three times as much. By the time it reaches supermarket shelves, the price can have risen ten-fold.)

Numbers and Statistics – The Facts:
The table below shows the estimated whale populations from the IWC.

Type Ocean Numbers
Minke Whale Southern Hemisphere 761,000
North West Pacific and Okhotsk Sea 25,000
North Atlantic 174,000
Bowhead Whale Bering-Chukchi- Beaufort Seas 10,500
Fin Whale North Atlantic 30,000
Humpback Whale Western North Atlantic 11,570
Blue Whale Southern Hemisphere 1,700
Pilot Whale Central & Eastern North Atlantic 78,000

Source: International Whaling Commission Official Homepage
Additional, estimate populations include:

  • Sperm Whales – from 200,000 to 2.2 million,
  • Bryde’s Whales – in the hundreds of thousands, and
  • Sei Whales – approx. 54,000.

So with that in mind, exactly how many whales is Japan hunting each year?
Since 1987, under the name of scientific research, the IWC has allowed Japan to fish 6065 tonnes of only Minke whales (thats about 400 actual whales). And since 2001, Japan has applied to increase this to include another 100 Minkes in the North Atlantic, 50 Bryde’s, 10 Sperm whales, and 39 Sei whales. That’s all folks.

So why the Big Problem?
gp2.jpgWith such a raging debate over such small number of whales, it appears to have developed into a cultural clash. Greenpeace has stooped to doing reckless things, such as when Japanese whalers have harpooned a whale, attaching its own dinghy in protest around the rope and whale being pulled up, somehow expecting the whaling boat to stop hauling it in. This has already resulted in damage and injuries for boats and people on both sides. Even if whales are that intelligent, how many whale lives is a human life worth?
This shows how rational thought in this conflict has been replaced by raw emotion.

This video shows an actual high seas collision that occurred in the Southern Ocean between a Japanese whaling boat, and a Greenpeace boat. It was highly publicised at the time, and the marketing power of Greenpeace had the world believing it was all the Japanese boat’s fault. I am no boat captain, but looking at this, the Greenpeace boat was in a position to prevent the accident more than the Japanese boat was:

On the other hand, the Japanese side have made some childish moves. At the IWC meeting held in Shimonoseki in 2002, they had the audacity to serve up whale meat for lunch to the delegates of the participating countries, apparently in an effort to show that whale meat actually tastes good”. Here is the specific whale recipe prepared before the IWC Meeting. They have also contempt for the IWC by overtly buying votes from countries new to the Commission, such as Mongolia, one of the most landlocked countries in the world, which should need no place in the IWC at all.

Whale Take Away - Would you like lies with that?Despite all the childish games, throwing of stones, and poking with sticks; from the perspective of ensuring the sustainability of whale populations, the IWC seems in fact to be functioning adequately. The question of whether or not Japan should be allowed to sell whale meat on the market should be something that all countries sit down and discuss like adults, based on fact, not blind faith in the supposed intellect of an animal. And whether eating it is “right” or not, should then be up to whoever is sitting at the dinner table.
As long as my children and their children will be able to see and enjoy this large animal of the sea, I don’t have a problem if they enjoy whale meat with perhaps a bit of ginger, wasabi and garlic. What do you think? Please leave a comment telling us where you stand, and more importantly why?

75 thoughts on “Scientific Slaughter – Japan and the Whales”

  1. You’re right, you are no sea captain. Anyone who has spent time at sea knows there are two major rules for crossing the path of another ship. Give way to the ship on your starboard side and a turning ship must give way to a ship going in a straight line. Japan was in the wrong on both counts as anyone can see.
    You might hate Greenpeace for all sorts of reasons (as a commerical fisherman, I don’t like them much myself), but they were 100% in the right here.

  2. You’re right about International Rule. But real problem is, Japan has hundreds of islands that have different groups of people with totally different lifestyles. Don’t blame every citizen for everything everybody does. Japan is NOT homogenious like that. Many people are forced to do what they do because centralization/Imperialism/
    Globalism took everything from poor locals. Think about people who have to change their jobs and move around every time global trend changes and critisize what ‘JAPANESE’ do. Many just do what they do to eat. I know many ‘Central’ Japanese make money from it or eat it as delicacy, they should get punished.

  3. I, too, blame how they do it especially when they are lying. But eating whale has not been popular amongst mains stream Japanese like that. Some minority group has been. Do not generalize such a huge population. I personally think bringing Asian philosophy into the islands are the cause of sins and disasters. How many became slaves? Don’t blame slaves, though. They are just doing what they force them to do. Isn’t there any way to preserve the whale eating culture and do not exterminate any species?

  4. just wanted to clarify what i meant. Japan is not centralized like people would imagine. People from different island/region often find each other’s custom especilly food DISGUSTING. But all the money goes into Tokyo and some rich folks get to try everything from every island and they introfuce those as gourmet to the world. Sushi is one of them. And they mix up everthing and use sensationalism to tell how barbaric everybody in Japan is. Then if we are not barbarian, some of us simply should commit suiside to save the world.

  5. I meant ‘now I know many of whale eaters are eating just for delicacy, too after reading some more articles’ From what I used to see around me I thought only minorities near searshores like us eat whales. And they sell those whale meats overseas for dog food and stuff, too. Damn. And we get blamed for all that. I still will defent eating whales itself, though. But when people worry about more than they need, mass-slaghtering start.

  6. I can speak only poor English.
    I am glad that an argument about active whaling is considered to be it here and think.

    Please try so hard that I have you understand the present conditions and legitimacy of the whaling towards most.

  7. Japan is a small f***** country. what the hell does it need to eat whales for? the UN and US should put sanctions on them (like banning all their automobiles and electronics) if they do not quit their s***.
    seriously, if all the countries decided to get a quota of their whaling rights, the I’m pretty sure Japan would have to do with 1/1000th of a whale portion per year. kudos to the greenies, biologists, and all those who support the whales, and all those who oppose Japan’s irrational stand on whales.

    Let’s preserve the whales and culture. I am Asian-American and would like to think that I can see both sides fairly. Growing up, I was often caused a spectacle when I ate. My American (non-Asian) friends could hardly believe the odd and peculiar things Asians eat; tongue, intestines, insects, etc. In contrast, my more traditional family could not understrand my love for hot dogs, Big Macs, and deep dish pizza.
    I don’t want any animal going extinct, but I also don’t want cultures being changed just because outsiders think it’s gross to eat, in this case, whales.
    If you can honestly say you understand a culture and do not agree with their actions, then by all means, go ahead. Fight your fight. But we here in the U.S. have more issues to deal with worse over-whailing. Let’s clean our house before we mind someone else’s.

  9. International wheat and other food prices are going up due to increased consumption in China and India, and this obviously puts more stress on “food security” in the public. I think, there will be a big move by Japan about whaling in next 3 years (incl. “Norway option” or officially list Sea Shepherd as terrorist organization and use due force)

  10. Whaling is a cruel and disturbing way to kill an animal. The Japanese say it’s for scientific research and they need to get skin samples so they kill them. When the whales show of or dive huge chunks of skin come off and they could scoop it up in a net but they kill them instead! The meat also just happens to end up in shops for people to by!!! Whales are usually killed with an explosive harpoon that detonates inside the whale’s body!!! It’s ok to kill cows for there meat because there not endangered!!!!! The government can put a stop to this and let the population breed up again so they can survive, once there go they can never come back!! Whaling is not humane and is stupid, so stop whaling and survive on something else Japanese and Norwegian people!!

  11. Though it may seem unbelievable, but even today this brutal, dantesque and bloody slaughter of dolphins are still carried out each year in the Faroe Islands which belong to Denmark. A country supposedly “civilized” and belonging to the European Union. For many it is unknown this attack to life, to the sensitivity and to everything. In this bloody slaughter involving the young men to show entering adulthood (!). Is absolutely incredible that there is nothing to prevent this barbaric act that is committed against the pilot whales, a dolphin that has the intelligent approach to people out of pure curiosity.

    see more about dolphin slaughtery in Denmark and Japon in:

  12. What is the motive of VIP, what has whaling to do India or China domestic consumption? What is the relevant connection, on what freaking proof/ground? Too generalized. But what bothers me most is the whaling, the lies, conceit, to what extend will comes to. I am worried for the whales man. So stop blaming other nations, get to the point, we need freaking conservation here, Nips can eat sea cows for all I care. But the Nips need to nip their habits to help out instead of coming out with creative whaling! Damm conceited people.


    International wheat and other food prices are going up due to increased consumption in China and India, and this obviously puts more stress on “food security” in the public. I think, there will be a big move by Japan about whaling in next 3 years (incl. “Norway option” or officially list Sea Shepherd as terrorist organization and use due force)\”

    Go green, go Deepark!

  13. Japan has always been an extremely selfish, insular society, still worshiping an emperor. Simple fact is, they want their whale meat, just like they are one of the largest users of Shark Fin, rhinoceros horn, and Ivory and other imaginary medications taken from endangered species. They will go to any length, legal or illegal to maintain their traditions, while giving the finger to the rest of the world.

  14. What is the piont of the whale hunting what are they trying to prove. Wont the economy get worse because the plankton will over flow then there wont be a balance then the ocean will chang e not in a good way

  15. Report: Toxins found in whales bode ill for humans

    By ARTHUR MAX, Associated Press Writer Arthur Max, Associated Press Writer – Thu Jun 24, 7:35 pm ET
    AGADIR, Morocco – Sperm whales feeding even in the most remote reaches of Earth’s oceans have built up stunningly high levels of toxic and heavy metals, according to American scientists who say the findings spell danger not only for marine life but for the millions of humans who depend on seafood.

    A report released Thursday noted high levels of cadmium, aluminum, chromium, lead, silver, mercury and titanium in tissue samples taken by dart gun from nearly 1,000 whales over five years. From polar areas to equatorial waters, the whales ingested pollutants that may have been produced by humans thousands of miles away, the researchers said.

    “These contaminants, I think, are threatening the human food supply. They certainly are threatening the whales and the other animals that live in the ocean,” said biologist Roger Payne, founder and president of Ocean Alliance, the research and conservation group that produced the report.

    The researchers found mercury as high as 16 parts per million in the whales. Fish high in mercury such as shark and swordfish — the types health experts warn children and pregnant women to avoid — typically have levels of about 1 part per million.

    The whales studied averaged 2.4 parts of mercury per million, but the report’s authors said their internal organs probably had much higher levels than the skin samples contained.

    “The entire ocean life is just loaded with a series of contaminants, most of which have been released by human beings,” Payne said in an interview on the sidelines of the International Whaling Commission’s annual meeting.

    Payne said sperm whales, which occupy the top of the food chain, absorb the contaminants and pass them on to the next generation when a female nurses her calf. “What she’s actually doing is dumping her lifetime accumulation of that fat-soluble stuff into her baby,” he said, and each generation passes on more to the next.

    Ultimately, he said, the contaminants could jeopardize seafood, a primary source of animal protein for 1 billion people.

    “You could make a fairly tight argument to say that it is the single greatest health threat that has ever faced the human species. I suspect this will shorten lives, if it turns out that this is what’s going on,” he said.

    Payne called his group’s $5 million project the most comprehensive report ever done on ocean pollutants.

    U.S. Whaling Commissioner Monica Medina informed the 88 member nations of the whaling commission of the report and urged the commission to conduct further research.

    The report “is right on target” for raising issues critical to humans as well as whales, Medina told The Associated Press. “We need to know much more about these problems.”

    Payne, 75, is best known for his 1968 discovery and recordings of songs by humpback whales, and for finding that some whale species can communicate with each other over thousands of miles.

    The 93-foot Odyssey, a sail-and-motor ketch, set out in March 2000 from San Diego to document the oceans’ health, collecting pencil-eraser-sized samples using a dart gun that barely made the whales flinch.

    After more than five years and 87,000 miles, samples had been taken from 955 whales. The samples were sent for analysis to marine toxicologist John Wise at the University of Southern Maine. DNA was compared to ensure the animals were not tested more than once.

    Payne said the original objective of the voyage was to measure chemicals known as persistent organic pollutants, and the study of metals was an afterthought.

    The researchers were stunned with the results. “That’s where the shocking, sort of jaw-dropping concentrations exist,” Payne said.

    Though it was impossible to know where the whales had been, Payne said the contamination was embedded in the blubber of males formed in the frigid polar regions, indicating that the animals had ingested the metals far from where they were emitted.

    “When you’re working with a synthetic chemical which never existed in nature before and you find it in a whale which came from the Arctic or Antarctic, it tells you that was made by people and it got into the whale,” he said.

    How that happened is unclear, but the contaminants likely were carried by wind or ocean currents, or were eaten by the sperm whales’ prey.

    Sperm whales are toothed whales that eat all kinds of fish, even sharks. Dozens have been taken by whaling ships in the past decade. Most of the whales hunted by the whaling countries of Japan, Norway and Iceland are minke whales, which are baleen whales that feed largely on tiny krill.

    Chromium, an industrial pollutant that causes cancer in humans, was found in all but two of the 361 sperm whale samples that were tested for it. Those findings were published last year in the scientific journal Chemosphere.

    “The biggest surprise was chromium,” Payne said. “That’s an absolute shocker. Nobody was even looking for it.”

    The corrosion-resistant metal is used in stainless steel, paints, dyes and the tanning of leather. It can cause lung cancer in people who work in industries where it is commonly used, and was the focus of the California environmental lawsuit that gained fame in the movie “Erin Brockovich.”

    It was impossible to say from the samples whether any of the whales suffered diseases, but Wise found that the concentration of chromium found in whales was several times higher than the level required to kill healthy cells in a Petri dish, Payne said.

    He said another surprise was the high concentrations of aluminum, which is used in packaging, cooking pots and water treatment. Its effects are unknown.

    The consequences of the metals could be horrific for both whale and man, he said.

    “I don’t see any future for whale species except extinction,” Payne said. “This is not on anybody’s radar, no government’s radar anywhere, and I think it should be.”

  16. Please Note…. Perspective
    Less then a thousand of just one type of Whale is showing lethal levels 16 times higher in Mercury just one metal type pollutant and as pointed out this is at the surface in the skin and fat so what would the internal organs be like.
    A question is whether Krill, which baleen whales feed on, do these small life forms absorb any dangerous metallic poisons?
    Even if negative on that question I have to wonder for how long will the oceans continue to absorb human’s greed and all the waste we throw at them. All sea life swims in our pollution as well as there own and they eat other sea life that swims in it and then we harvest them and eat it. I guess what they say is true…”What comes around goes around.”

    Those who eat from the sea eat toxic waste in all forms.
    So if this report is correct then the whales will have there revenge by giving those who eat them early death and deformed children.

    So sad for if we kill the seas we kill ourselves.

  17. The Japanese are in fact using money from the Sunami fund to kill whales.Something is very wrong with this.First the Japanese people dont eat that much whale meat,Second the money should be used to rebuild there nation and third has any one watched the brutality used to kill whales?. and last but not least i hope they choke on the mercury filled meat.We are destroying our worlds oceans. and the Japanese kill Whales along with Thousands of Dolphins every year.They herd the Dolphins into a bay and cut them to pieces with knives.Its horible to watch and if you dont believe me,Just a little research will prove im right.

  18. Can anyone tell me the right place in Japan where they have or sell whale tooth

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