Whale food culture and protecting the business / Shimonoseki
2007/3/28 - In a freezer, 25 degrees below zero. After a few minutes, rather than feel cold, one's skin begins to hurt. Cardboard boxes purchased from Kyodo Senpaku (Tokyo) which conducts research whaling are stacked up. Inside there is various whale meat, such as red meat, unesu (*1), and meat from the tail. In the case of red meat, boxes will be sold in sizes of 15 kilograms.
This is Maruko Inc, in Shimonoseki, a wholesaler that has dealt in whale meat since prior to the war (*2), and which continues today even after the dramatic decrease in the numbers of whales caught in 1987, with the cessation of commercial whaling and beginning of research whaling. The whale meat from the freezer is brought to a processing area where it is cut into slices, or salted, and then shipped nationwide in shapes such as sashimi, bacon, or obaike (*3)
Shimonoseki has been labelled as the birth place of commercial whaling. This stems from 1899, when a company established here introduced Norwegian whaling methods, and the town prospered as Japan's most prominent whaling base both before and after the war. Even now this food culture remains, with whale meat arranged in many supermarkets, retail stores, izakaya and other restaurants.
"What to do with the company? It was a huge problem."
Marukou President Takumi Furuta looks back on the time when research whaling began. With domestic whale meat production dropping to 1,000 tonnes from what had been an annual 25,000 tonnes in the 1980's before the end of [commercial] whaling, there was an extreme reduction in the amount of product coming into stock. The company somehow managed to get by using stocks purchased during the commercial whaling era. From the 1990's, Marukou kept things running by turning towards diversification, opening a whale meat restaurant under it's direct management.
20 years have past since the beginning of research whaling. Gradually catches have increased, and currently whale meat production is around 5,500 tonnes. The increase in supply has also seen whale meat prices change, for example red meat is now 2,000 yen per kilogram, or half that of the time when prices peaked. With supply and price difficulties, consumption of whale meat by the Japanese has tapered off compared with what it once was, but "Consumption is increasing, little by little," Furuta feels. "Whales are part of the character of Shimonoseki. First we hope for support from the local community", he says, expressing hope for consumption increases.
(*1) Unesu meat is that from between the lower jaw and belly of the whale. See the images at the very bottom of this page for a look.
(*2) That means WWII.
(*3) Obaike images at Google
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