A little after noon one Monday in late January, a buzz of anticipation filled the cafeteria of the No. 1 Elementary School in the sleepy former whaling town of Shirahama, Wakayama Prefecture, Japan. Thanks to the exertions of the local fisheries association and board of education, the 21 young scholars in the room were about to get a special treat with their workaday portions of milk, rice, salad and mandarin oranges: marinated, deep-fried fillet of whale. The greasy feast was one of 704 similar lunches the board has provided to 339 schools in the prefecture since January 2005. "Reaction from parents has been uniformly positive," declared principal Yukio Hamanaka. Ditto for the students, who played paper-rock-scissors to divvy up seconds.
The lunch was part of a campaign launched by Japan's central and local governments to save the country's most controversial cuisine from extinction. Even as Japan steps up efforts to end the 19-year moratorium on commercial whaling imposed by the International Whaling Commission (IWC), its seafood-loving citizens are less and less enthusiastic about tucking into the catch. As a result, trade inventories of the tough, gamy meat have climbed 1,000 tons since the late 1990s, to around 3,000 tons today--about as much as gets eaten annually. The average Japanese, who clearly prefers watching whales to eating them, ingests barely an ounce of the meat each year, compared with 13 lbs. of beef, 22 lbs. of chicken and 79 lbs. of fish.
Japan is grimly determined, however, to expand its whaling business, in part as cover for its $14 billion commercial fishing industry, which is increasingly being targeted by other environmental bodies. Although slackening demand has pushed wholesale prices of whale meat down 10% to 30% over the past year alone, it remains costly, at a wholesale rate that ranges between $3.70 and $70 per lb., depending on the cut. The marbled tail meat is prized by connoisseurs, as is whale sashimi, which is eaten with grated ginger or garlic to mask the odor. "I've had the meat," says Miki Ikari, 30, an account manager in Tokyo, "and I wasn't impressed. It could disappear from the earth, and I wouldn't miss it one bit."
That isn't likely to happen anytime soon. Like its whaling ally Iceland, Japan gets its meat by exploiting a loophole in the IWC's moratorium that permits members to cull whales for scientific study--a practice cetologists now consider mostly unnecessary because of advances in tracking and dna technology. The hunting itself is done by Japan's only whaling fleet, owned by Kyodo Senpaku Kaisha of Tokyo, a ship-chartering firm. Sales of the meat are used solely to fund Japan's Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR), which conducts the studies. "The IWC convention stipulates that any by-product be processed and used," explains Hideki Moronuki of the Fisheries Agency. But independent scientists say the slaughter is wildly disproportionate to the research it produces.