Yokohama, Japan– A Japanese whaling operator, after years of struggling to promote its products amid protests by conservationists, has found a new way to attract customers and increase sales: whale meat vending machines.
The Kujira (whale) store, an unmanned outlet recently opened in the port of Yokohama near Tokyo, has three machines for whale sashimi, whale bacon, whale skin and whale steak, as well as 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 launch in the Japanese capital region. Kyodo Senpaku opened on Tuesday after introducing two more in Tokyo earlier this year as part of the company’s new sales campaign.
Whale meat has long been a source of controversy but sales from the new vending machines are quietly off to a good start, operators say. Anti-whaling protests have subsided since Japan ended its much-publicized research hunt in the Antarctic in 2019 and resumed commercial whaling off Japanese coasts.
Conservationists say they worry the move could be a step toward expanded whaling.
“The problem is not the vending machines themselves, but what can cause them,” said Nanami Kurasawa, head of Iruka. and Kujira (dolphin and Whales) Action Network.
Kurasawa noted that whaling operators are already asking for additional catches and expanding whaling outside designated waters.
Company spokesman Konomu Kubo told The Associated Press that Kyodo Senpaku hopes to set up vending machines in 100 locations nationwide within five years. A fourth is set to open in Osaka next month.
To boost demand, the idea is to open vending machines near supermarkets where whale meat is usually unavailable, a vital function for the industry to survive.
Major supermarket chains have largely steered clear of whale meat to avoid protests from anti-whaling groups and to be cautious, though harassment by activists has eased, Kubo said.
“As a result, many consumers who want to eat it cannot find or buy whale meat. We launched vending machines in unmanned stores for those people,” he said.
Company officials say sales at the two Tokyo outlets have significantly exceeded expectations, with employees busy replenishing products.
At the store in Yokohama’s Motomachi district, a posh shopping area near Chinatown, 61-year-old customer Mami Kashiwabara went straight for her father’s favorite whale bacon. She was disappointed and sold it and she frozen onomi, the tail meat known as a rare delicacy.
Kashiwabara says she is aware of the whaling controversy but brings back childhood memories of eating whale meat at family dinners and school lunches.
“I don’t think it’s good to kill whales needlessly. But whale meat is part of Japanese food culture, and we can respect whale meat by appreciating its life,” Kashiwabara said. “I’d be happy if I could eat it.”
Kashiwabara said she plans to share the 3,000 yen ($23) handy-sized piece, neatly wrapped in a freezer bag, with her husband.
The meat comes mainly from whales caught off the northeast coast of Japan.
Japan resumed commercial whaling in July 2019 after withdrawing from the International Whaling Commission, known as research whaling for 30 years, which was criticized by conservationists for commercial whaling banned by the IWC in 1988.
Under its commercial whaling in the Japanese exclusive economic zone, Japan caught 270 whales last year, less than 80% of the quota and less than the number hunted in its research programs in the Antarctic and northwest Pacific.
The decline was due to fewer minke whales being found on the beach. Kurasawa says whether the reason for the smaller catch is related to overhunting or climate change should be investigated.
Conservation groups protested the resumption of commercial whaling, while others saw the government’s troubled and expensive whaling program as a way to adapt to changing times and tastes.
In a show of determination to keep the whaling industry alive for decades to come, Kyodo Senpaku will build a new 6 billion yen ($46 million) mother ship to replace the aging Nishin Maru for launch next year.
But uncertainty remains.
Support for whaling is declining in other whaling nations, such as Iceland, where only one whale remains.
Kubo said whales are drifting away from Japanese shores due to the lack of saari, a staple of their diet, and other fish, possibly due to the effects of climate change.
Whaling in Japan involves only a few hundred people and one operator, and has accounted for less than 0.1% of total meat consumption in recent years, according to statistics from the Fisheries Agency.
Still, conservative ruling lawmakers staunchly support commercial whaling and meat consumption as part of Japan’s cultural heritage.
Whale meat is no longer part of the daily diet, especially for younger generations in Japan, conservationists say.
Whale meat was an affordable source of protein during Japan’s malnutrition years after World War II, with annual consumption reaching 233,000 tons in 1962.
Whales were quickly replaced by other meats. The supply of whale meat fell to 6,000 tons in 1986, a year before the IWC banned the hunting of many whale species.
Under research whaling, criticized as a cover for commercial hunting because the meat was sold in markets, Japan caught as many as 1,200 whales each year. It has drastically reduced its catch after international opposition grew and domestic supply and consumption of whale meat declined.
Annual meat supplies fluctuated in the range of 3,000–5,000 tonnes, including imports from Norway and Iceland. In 2019 that amount dropped further to 2,000 tonnes, or 20 grams (less than 1 ounce) of whale meat per person per year, Fisheries Agency figures show.
Whaling officials have attributed declining supplies over the past three years to a lack of imports due to the pandemic, and plan to nearly double this year’s supply by importing more than 2,500 tonnes from Iceland.
Japan managed to get Iceland’s only remaining whaler to hunt fin whales just for shipment to Japan, whaling officials said. According to the IWC, Iceland only caught one minke whale in the 2021 season.
Criticizing Iceland’s exports to Japan, the International Fund for Animal Welfare said it “opposes all commercial whaling because it is inherently cruel.”
With an uncertain outlook for imports, Kyodo Senpaku wants the government to increase Japan’s annual catch quota to a level that can supply around 5,000 tonnes, which Kubo described as the threshold to sustain the industry.
“From a long-term perspective, I think it will be difficult to sustain the industry at current supply levels,” Kubo said. “We must expand both supply and demand, both of which have contracted.”
Due to the extremely limited supply, whale meat processing cannot be a viable business and cannot be sustained for generations to come, he added.
Yuki Okoshi, who began serving whale meat dishes at his Japanese-style seafood restaurant three years ago when high-quality whale meat became available under commercial whaling, hopes the supply of whale meat will stabilize.
Okoshi said that “the future of the whaling industry depends on whether consumers need us” and that whale meat restaurants may be the key to survival.
“Whaling may be a political issue, but the relationship between the restaurant and our customers is very simple,” Okoshi said. “We serve good food at reasonable prices and the customers are happy. That’s all there is to it.”