Once a year or so the furor over Japanese whaling raises it’s head to the surface again; this year, it comes in the form of vague speculation that this years whale hunt might claim the life of “Migaloo”, the world’s only known white humpback whale. Of course, there’s no actual indication that the Japanese have any particular interest in engaging in a bout of albino spearing, presumably killing unusually pigmented sea mammals is every bit as important to Japanese culture as other whale killings.
What isn’t clearly that important to Japanese culture is actually eating the whales in question. In recent years, despite lower prices, whale meat has been a hard sell on the Japanese open market. Excess whale meat is being sold to Japanese schools to be made into cheap lunches for children in an effort to reduce the glut, but there still seem to be relatively few takers. Despite encouragement from the whaling industry, whale meat is no longer considered particularly attractive by many Japanese. The Japanese government has even gone to great lengths to depict whale meat as a significant part of traditional cuisine, though conservation groups maintain that they’re borrowing from the history of isolated coastal communities and depicting them as typical.
Of course, whaling in Japan has little to do with Japanese cuisine, and everything to do with Japanese politics. Japan has been eager in recent years to assert a bit of independence in the face of international opposition. Whaling offers an excellent opportunity to do so; realistically, there is very little chance of the international community imposing any serious consequences for ignoring the whaling ban, particularly as Japan continues to argue that their whaling is covered by the scientific research exemption. While conservation groups and a minority of Japanese oppose whaling, it’s not clear that any government has a vested interest in putting a stop to Japan’s whaling activity. Meanwhile, thumbing a symbolic nose at the international community scores cheap points with Japanese nationalists.
With the election of a new Japanese PM this fall, it will be interesting to see how the Japanese government will react to the next round of inevitable criticisms from the international community. Japan’s last two prime ministers seemed to have a penchant for creating controversy on nationalist issues. While Fukuda has made some noises regarding reining in a few of predecessor Junichiro Koizumi’s more controversial symbolic gestures, it’s far from clear that he has any interest in more substantive changes in these issues, where face seems to matter more than taste.