A Japanese delicacy that isn't

Observations on whales

What do you do with a dead whale? After recent events in the Thames and Humber estuaries, this unfamiliar question has posed itself, and one obvious answer might be to eat it. After all, that's what they do in Japan, isn't it?

Certainly it is what some Japanese want you to believe. It may be officially in the interests of "scientific research" that the factory ship Nisshin Maru is in Antarctica slaughtering 900 minke whales, but what drives the enterprise is a stubborn determination that the meat should be available for human consumption back home. And there is no end of propaganda attacking the "imperialistic" foreign persecution of indulgence in this beloved, ancient culinary delicacy.

Just as the Institute of Cetacean Research in Tokyo can offer little evidence of science behind the whale hunting, however, so the tradition of whale eating turns out to be a slippery thing.

It was only after the Second World War, in fact, when much of the population was close to starvation, that whale was first widely consumed in Japan, and few people seem to have liked it. A survey by the British firm MORI found that 61 per cent of Japanese had never eaten whale since childhood and only 1 per cent ate it more than once a month. Last year, a fifth of the "scientific" catch - which the authorities admit goes to restaurants and shops - was frozen and stored uneaten.

My own inquiries at five supermarket chains found none selling it, even in tins. The only demand is from gourmet (mostly wealthy) elitists, dedicated nationalists and a few genuinely traditional diners in outlying Hokkaido and Kyushu islands.

It is also expensive. At a Tokyo restaurant called Kujiraya - "the whale place" - a selection of five meat styles cost £30 per person, one tiny steak was £7.50, and a stew, £25 per portion. Elsewhere testicles were available, but unpriced. Most expensive and rarest of all is whale bacon. This is salty and sliced thin, but there its resemblance to the pig flesh of the same name ends.

"It tastes nothing like British bacon," said a leading Tokyo chef, Yasumitsu Saito. "It's very oily and soft and white, and we have to prepare it with vinegar or miso. It's not much liked." McDonald's, which sells fish burgers in Japan, is unlikely to launch a whale-bacon burger.

None of which, however, makes any difference to the politics. And so it is that, down in the Antarctic, the Nisshin Maru continues to slaughter the big beasts that almost no one wants to eat.

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