YOKOHAMA, Japan (AP) — A Japanese whaling operator, after years of struggling to promote its products amid protests from conservationists, has found a new way to cultivate customers and boost sales: whale meat vending machines.
The Kujira (Whale) Store, an unmanned store that recently opened in the port city of Yokohama near Tokyo, houses three machines for whale sashimi, whale blubber, whale skin and whale steak, and canned whale meat. Prices range from 1,000 yen ($7.70) to 3,000 yen ($23).
The outlet features white vending machines decorated with cartoon whales and is the third location to be launched in Japan’s capital region. It opened on Tuesday after two more were launched in Tokyo earlier this year as part of Kyodo Senpaku Co.’s new sales offensive.
Whale meat has long been a source of controversy, but sales in the new vending machines have quietly gotten off to a good start, the operator says. Anti-whaling protests have subsided since Japan halted its much-criticized research hunt in Antarctica in 2019 and resumed commercial whaling off Japan’s coasts.
Conservationists say they are concerned the move could be a step toward expanded 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 noted that the whaling operator is already asking for additional catches and expanding whaling outside of designated waters.
Kyodo Senpaku hopes to have 100 vending machines nationwide in five years, company spokesman Konomu Kubo told The Associated Press. A fourth is slated to open in Osaka next month.
The idea is to open vending machines near supermarkets, where whale meat isn’t typically available, to cultivate demand, a task vital to the industry’s survival.
Big supermarket chains have largely stayed away from whale meat to avoid protests from anti-whaling groups and remain cautious although harassment by activists has eased, Kubo said.
The story goes on
“As a result, many consumers who want to eat it cannot find or buy whale meat. We introduced vending machines in unmanned stores for these people,” he said.
According to company officials, sales at the two Tokyo stores were significantly higher than expected, keeping staff busy replenishing products.
At the store in Yokohama’s Motomachi district, a posh shopping district near Chinatown, 61-year-old shopper Mami Kashiwabara went straight for her father’s favorite whale blubber. To her disappointment, it was sold out and she opted for frozen onomi, tail meat considered a rare delicacy.
Kashiwabara says she’s aware of the controversy surrounding whaling, but this whale meat brings back childhood memories of eating it at family dinners and school lunches.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea to kill whales pointlessly. But whale meat is part of Japanese food culture, and we can respect whales’ lives by appreciating their meat,” Kashiwabara said. “I would be happy if I could eat it.”
Kashiwabara said she plans to share her purchase of a 3,000 yen ($23) handy piece, neatly wrapped in a freezer bag, with her husband over sake.
The meat comes mainly from whales caught off the northeastern coast of Japan.
Japan resumed commercial whaling in July 2019 after withdrawing from the International Whaling Commission, ending 30 years of so-called research whaling, which had been criticized by conservationists as a cover for commercial hunts banned by the IWC in 1988 .
As part of its commercial whaling in Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone, Japan caught 270 whales last year, less than 80% of the quota and fewer than the number it once hunted in its research program in Antarctica and the Northwest Pacific.
The decrease occurred because fewer minke whales were found along the coast. Kurasawa says the reason for the reduced catch should be investigated to see if it’s related to overhunting or climate change.
While conservation groups have condemned the resumption of commercial whaling, some see it as a way to adapt the government’s embattled and expensive whaling program to changing times and tastes.
In a show of determination to keep the whaling industry afloat for decades to come, Kyodo Senpaku will build a new 6 billion yen ($46 million) mothership to be launched next year to replace the aging Nisshin Maru .
But the uncertainty remains.
In other whaling nations like Iceland, where there is only one whaler left, whaling is losing support.
Whales may also be moving away from Japan’s shores due to shortages of saury, a staple of their diet, and other fish, possibly due to the effects of climate change, Kubo said.
Whaling in Japan employs just a few hundred people and one operator, and accounted for less than 0.1% of total meat consumption in recent years, according to Fisheries Agency data.
Nonetheless, conservative ruling lawmakers strongly support commercial whaling and consumption of the meat as part of Japan’s cultural tradition.
Conservationists say whale meat is no longer part of the daily diet in Japan, especially for younger generations.
Whale meat was an affordable source of protein in Japan’s malnourished years after World War II, with an annual consumption of 233,000 tons in 1962.
Whale was quickly replaced by other types of meat. Whale meat supplies fell to 6,000 tons in 1986, a year before the IWC-imposed moratorium on commercial whaling banned the hunting of several whale species.
Research whaling, which has been criticized as a cover for commercial hunting because the meat is sold on the market, catches up to 1,200 whales a year in Japan. It has since drastically reduced its catch after international protests escalated and domestic supplies and consumption of whale meat plummeted.
The annual meat supply varied 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 statistics from the Department of Fisheries.
Whaling officials attributed the shrinking supply over the past three years to a lack of imports due to the pandemic and plan to nearly double this year’s supply with imports of more than 2,500 tons from Iceland.
Japan has managed to get Iceland’s only remaining whaler to hunt fin whales solely for shipment to Japan, whaling officials said. Iceland caught just one minke whale in the 2021 season, according to the IWC.
The International Fund for Animal Welfare has criticized Iceland’s export to Japan, saying it is “opposed to all commercial whaling as it is inherently cruel”.
With the uncertain outlook for imports, Kyodo Senpaku wants the government to raise Japan’s annual catch quota to a level that can supply about 5,000 tons, which Kubo describes as a threshold for sustaining the industry.
“Long term, I think it would be difficult to keep the industry at current levels of supply,” Kubo said. “We need to expand both supply and demand, both of which have shrunk.”
Given the extremely limited supply, processing whale meat may not be a viable business and may not last for generations to come, he added.
Yuki Okoshi, who started serving whale meat dishes at his Japanese-style seafood restaurant three years ago when commercial whaling made higher-quality whale meat available, said he hopes whale meat supplies will stabilize.
Okoshi said “the future of the whale industry depends on whether customers need us” and that whale meat restaurants could be the key to survival.
“Whaling can be a political issue, but the relationships between the restaurant and our customers are very simple,” Okoshi said. “We serve good food at reasonable prices and the customers are happy. That’s all there is to it.”