On my Google News page, I’ve created a custom section to display news about Japan using the lone search term “Japan.” Usually, it doesn’t yield very interesting stories. Most of the time the headlines are about either business and finance or about sports (especially soccer), and occasionally something about North Korea crops up. Ho hum. But every now and then I get a few stories that I find quite… what’s the opposite of boring?
- Japan Proposes ‘Aboriginal’ Return to Killing Whales for Profit (Bloomberg)
- Japan urged to use Greenpeace ship to tow its stricken whaler from Antarctic coast (China Post)
- Yen Heads for Weekly Gain on Speculation Japan’s Rates to Rise (Bloomberg)
- U.S. Presses Japan on Farm Imports and India on World Trade Imports (Voice of America)
Wow, three out of four headlines related to two of the most pressing food issues in Japan: 1) commercial whaling and 2) agricultural trade restrictions. But before I get into these, let me tell you about what I did last Monday.
Regardless of how you choose to spend them, I think most of us would agree that three-day weekends are awesome. Last week, we had Monday off for National Foundation Day 建国記念日, a nativist/nationalist holiday commemorating the beginning of the imperial line and the founding of Japanese nation. This holiday has no significance to me whatsoever, but that didn’t stop me from celebrating it with gusto, enjoying a weekend filled with food, booze, and karaoke.One of the highlights of the holiday weekend was a trip I took with a few friends to Shimonoseki 下関, a city lying opposite Kitakyushu across the Kanmon Strait between Kyushu and Honshu. Famous for its naval warrior legends and its aquarium, Shimonoseki is also one of the best places to go for fresh seafood in the area. We took a train and a ferry from Kokura to explore the popular boardwalk area, especially the widely-known fish market and its surrounding eateries. As for the food, there were some disappointments (tepid, muddy unagi and raw anago with the consistency of latex gloves); some curiosities (slippery-soft fish semen 白子 and weirdly sweet sea urchin ice cream); and some genuine delights (the meaty fried fugu and rich maguro sushi come to mind).
Oh, and I also ate whale.
Somewhere between duck breast and beef heart, it was certainly the darkest meat I’ve ever eaten, a blackish brick red, the imperial stout of seafood. Rich, tender, and robust, but not ferric or oily despite having been deep-fried, I must say it was actually one of the tastiest animals I’ve ever put in my mouth. Better, I thought, than oysters, foie gras, and caviar. I was impressed.
Which brings me back to last week’s news…
I’ve alluded to Japanese whaling in previous posts, but I was forced to think about it more deeply last week, as Google News began to provide disapproving rebuttals to my indulgence in Shimonoseki. The thing is, when I ate that whale, it was just so easy. There it was, just sitting there on a styrofoam tray at a fishmonger’s kiosk, all dark and mysterious and intriguing, the black flesh of the culinary sensation-seeker’s white whale, innocent, passive, and guarded only by the low price of 500 yen. I bought it without batting an eye, and when we ate it, yes, we noted that we were eating something taboo – I mean, it is whale, after all – but did we care? No, not really. We joked about it, we marvelled at its flavor. We said, “Wow, that’s really good.” We didn’t pause to think about what it might actually take to kill a whale, and what that act signifies, biologically, psychologically, culturally, politically, environmentally, economically, and so on.Government officials are now trying to argue that Japan’s whaling activities are no different from the subsistence whaling practiced by various ethnic groups like the Inuit, who are exempt from the International Whaling Commission’s moratorium on whaling. This is an interesting argument, but in the end not a very convincing one, because although there are certainly plenty of Japanese who like to eat whale, it is by no stretch of the imagination a staple food, and to say that the Japanese hunt whales for “subsistence” would be an idiotic lie. I would tend to side with Greenpeace in their assertion that there is little reason why Japanese federal whalers should be allowed to follow through with their stated plans to kill 1,300 whales this year.
Meanwhile, a Japanese whaling ship is on fire near Antarctica, having rejected a Greenpeace vessel’s offer to tow it back to harbor. Why? Basically, because the Japanese government doesn’t want to lose face, and it doesn’t want to concede to Greenpeace such a diplomatic bargaining chip. If the fire burns out of control, there’s a serious risk of a major oil spill.
So I feel kind of guilty about eating the whale. Or at least conflicted. Would I eat it again? Probably. It’s easy to forget about the consequences of what we eat when they seem so far removed from us (don’t make me cite Anthony Bourdain again). It’s interesting to think of how this relates to my last post; I was talking to my dad about this whole thing on the phone, and he said I probably wouldn’t have eaten the whale, or at least I wouldn’t have enjoyed it nearly so much if there had been, say, picketers outside the fish market. I took it one step further and said that I also probably wouldn’t have eaten it if I had seen the whale being killed, or even seen its bloody carcass. Context is important.
Anyway, right now I’m having a little crisis similar to the one I had when I learned about the dolphin drive hunts in Japan. What’s more important: culinary enjoyment or respect for intelligent mammals, including international diplomats? The answer should be obvious… but keep in mind that about a week after I wrote about how icky killing dolphins is, I was eating raw horsemeat in Kumamoto.
Special thanks to Laura Tedesco for the photo.