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Japanese See Whale Meat as Symbol

October 8, 2000

TOKYO (AP) _ The slabs of red meat and blubber were stacked high, and red cans of meat were arranged in pyramids. Outside, mongers enticed customers with cries of ``Whale meat for sale!″

A festival at Japan’s premier fish market on Sunday touted what is perhaps the country’s most politically charged product _ whale meat _ as an important source of protein and a key element of Japanese food culture.

Attention on Japan’s whaling program has intensified since the United States threatened sanctions over Tokyo’s expansion of its hunt this year from minke whales to Bryde’s and sperm whales.

Japanese proponents of whaling say, however, that increasing whale populations are gobbling up other fish stocks. Whale meat fans at the fish market in Tsukiji were unabashed in their support of the hunt.

``The whale population is not actually falling; it’s rising, and I don’t think that’s been publicized,″ said Juro Ito, chairman of a Tokyo whale meat wholesaler.

The International Whaling Commission banned commercial whaling in 1986, though Japan has been allowed to catch a limited number of whales as part of an IWC-endorsed research program.

U.S. penalties for the expanded catch would likely cover Japanese fishery products and deny Japan fishing rights in U.S. waters. Tokyo has vowed to fight back if Washington makes good on its threat, probably by appealing to the World Trade Organization.

Statistical differences about whale populations aside, some Japanese view the continuing whale ban as a thinly veiled attack by the mainly Western anti-whaling countries on its culture.

``We get our protein mostly from fish, not from beef,″ said Tadashi Ishii, 46, a company employee from Tokyo. ``People who don’t eat whale see it (the killing of whales) as sad.″

The whale meat section at Sunday’s fish festival _ tucked in a corner in the sprawling market _ reflected that attitude.

Tables were piled with boxes of whale bacon, whale sashimi and canned whale meat from the latest hunt. A whale-shaped balloon dangled overhead, with ``Protect our seafood culture″ written on its side.

There were also tables containing surveys for visitors, including questions like ``Do you think eating whale is traditional Japanese food culture?″ and ``Do you know that whale meat is nutritious?″

Whaling in Japan certainly does go way back.

Japan’s whaling industry is among the world’s oldest, dating back to 1606. In modern times, what wasn’t eaten was used to make lubricants, detergents, margarine and other household goods.

Whale meat was a cheap source of protein for Japanese after World War II, when food was scarce. Now it is considered a delicacy by some, and whale dishes _ both raw and cooked _ are served in special restaurants.

One problem with widening whale meat these days is price.

Wholesale prices for the meat on display Sunday ranged from $3.68 for around a quarter pound of canned meat to $7.35 for just over an ounce of bacon.

``I used to eat a lot of it,″ said Masamitsu Nigishi, a 62-year-old company employee from Tokyo. ``But now it’s too expensive.″

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