Tokyo, Japan – As five fishing boats set sail from a port in northern Japan before dawn on Monday, it marked the end of an era.
The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe first announced the country’s withdrawal from the international convention on whaling last December, ending its membership of the International Whaling Commission (IWC).
“Japan’s basic policy, of promoting the sustainable use of aquatic living resources based on scientific evidence has not changed,” Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, said at the time. “Under that policy, we have decided to resume commercial whaling.”
Introduced by the IWC in 1986 to protect the world’s last remaining whales, the ban on commercial whaling nevertheless allowed Japan an annual whale quota for “scientific reasons”.
That this was only a charade seemed obvious, with the alleged objects of scientific inquiry ending up on refrigerated supermarket shelves instead of in laboratories.
Even after the International Court of Justice in 2014 declared the killing of whales in the name of science illegal, Japan continued whaling. Travelling as far as the North Atlantic or even to the Antarctic, home to the world’s largest populations of whales, Japanese fleets killed about 500 whales last year.
With the resumption of commercial whaling, Japanese boats will not be allowed to venture further than 200 miles (321km) off the country’s Pacific coast. But some environmentalists are still concerned because of the low whale stocks in Japan’s coastal waters.
Activists from the anti-whaling organisation Sea Shepherd say they are considering going back to sea to try and intercept whaling ships and protect the fragile whale population from Japanese harpoons.
While archaeological records indicate that the meat of washed-up sea mammals was first eaten in Japan several thousand years ago, paintings and calligraphic art show that the targeted hunting of the floating giants as a source of protein has been taking place since at least the 16th century.
But it wasn’t until the years after Japan’s devastating World War II defeat that whales became synonymous with the taste of home and childhood. Cheap, nutritious and plentiful, whale meat became a Japanese staple both at home and at school.
By championing whaling, the right-leaning Abe has been able to present himself as a strong advocate for Japan’s traditional lifestyle. At the same time, he is stoking national pride among Japanese who feel wronged by international criticism of whaling.
A poll by state broadcaster NHK revealed that 52 percent of Japanese people welcomed the country’s exit from the IWC – even if they themselves did not eat whale – and have little time for those who try to shame Japan over the issue.
“If you force others not to eat what you do not eat yourself, that’s cultural imperialism,” Hideki Moronuki, director for fisheries negotiations at Japan’s Fisheries Agency, told Al Jazeera.
But even as the hunt resumes, Japan’s appetite for whale meat is falling.
Back in the 1960s, Japan consumed 200,000 tonnes of it annually. Today, there is demand for only up to 5,000 tonnes, which works out to about 40 grams of whale meat per year for each citizen.
Nowhere is the decline more noticeable than in Tokyo’s chic restaurant and shopping district of Shibuya.
While the surging lunch crowd rushes by outside, Tokyo’s last traditional whale meat restaurant, Kujiraya, has just a handful of elderly couples studying the menu of deep-fried whale, whale sashimi or whale tempura. A whale steak, sold with miso soup and salad for 1,500 Yen (around $14), is served with garlic and chives and has the gamey taste of dry-aged beef.
“We have days when there are more curious tourists than Japanese coming to us,” complains Akane, the waitress. “That’s why we had to reduce our opening hours.”
Just 200 fishermen earn their living from whaling, according to the Fisheries Agency. Even factoring in meat processing, the entire industry employs only 300 people.
‘Beginning of the end’
While Japan has yet to reveal the exact number of whales it will hunt each year, experts assume that it will be significantly lower than the current quota.
With Abe’s government deciding to end the $400m in annual tax breaks and subsidies provided to whalers to conduct so-called scientific whaling, prices for whale meat are likely to rise.
Given dwindling consumer interest, it begs the question of why Japan is risking international condemnation to save a clearly endangered culinary tradition.
As an island nation, Japan depends on fishing to ensure its food supply, says negotiator Moronuki. Given the world’s rapidly growing population, it is important that “living marine resources, including cetaceans, be properly used in a sustainable manner based on science,” he adds.
Japan might also be digging its heels in on whaling because it wants to head off international initiatives to impose a ban on tuna fishing. Japan is the world’s largest market for bluefin tuna, which is now considered endangered.
But some conservationists say the resumption of commercial whaling will likely lead to fewer whales being killed amid shrinking demand for its meat as the government won’t be allowed to fish far beyond its waters.
By leaving the industry to survive at the whim of market forces, Abe has in fact initiated the end of Japanese whaling, according to Patrick Ramage, director of marine conservation for the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
“This is a face-saving way out of whaling, the beginning of the end of Japanese whaling,” he told a news conference in Tokyo this week.
Rather than breathing new life into the whaling industry, said Ramage, Abe has instead found a very “Japanese-elegant way” of allowing the industry to die out on its own.