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Japan Confronts Whale Meat Glut

Many Japanese consider whale meat a delicacy and now a new generation is getting a taste of what was once a significant source of nutrition for the country. Whale is increasingly returning to Japanese school lunch menus as the country tries to figure out what to do with an unprecedented glut of the meat.

The Japanese government says the country has an unprecedented surplus of whale meat - thousands of tons of it - mainly due to an expanded catch of whales in the northwestern Pacific Ocean.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Tomohiko Taniguchi says a new government campaign to get the public to eat more whale meat is intended to re-balance the market.

"Whether or not there is an increased amount of inventory is actually a matter of demand and supply in the marketplace," he said. "There has been a decreased appetite for the whale meat, so the supply and balance situation is getting changed."

Whale was a significant source of protein for the Japanese before and immediately after the Second World War.

But with an increasing number of Japanese restaurant patrons and supermarket shoppers now turning up their noses at whale, more of the meat is being sent to schools. In January, 1,600 kilograms ended up at 100 elementary and junior high schools - double the amount for 2005.

Greenpeace Japan activist Mizuki Takana says the school children, in accordance with Japanese custom, will have no option but to clear their plates.

"I never eat the whale meat, so I do not know the taste," she said. "But some people say the taste is not good. So they [the schools] try to cook [whale meat] really nicely. So it is kind of difficult to distinguish - this is the whale meat, this is the pork, this is the beef. If the taste is good, kids, anyway, love it."

Among the items on the school menus: whale meatballs, whale burgers and whale spaghetti.

The oversupply is prompting questions at home and abroad about whether Japan should reduce or end its whaling research program, long opposed by environmentalists and many other countries.

Despite a 1987 international moratorium on whale hunting, Japan has continued to hunt the mammals, arguing that to research the habits and diets of whales, it is necessary to kill them.

Japan this year intends to double its catch to more than 1,000 minke whales, as well as a few dozen fin whales, humpbacks and other species.

Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Taniguchi says the whaling program is misunderstood overseas.

"This gives a false impression as if Japan is doing this in order to sell the meat in order for the nation to eat [the whale meat]," he said. "That is absolutely incorrect."

Taniguchi says the government only funds 10 percent of the $49 million annual budget for whaling research, thus the remainder has to come from sale of the meat.

Greenpeace is shifting its battle against Japanese whaling from the ocean to supermarket shelves, hoping to get consumers in Japan and around the world to boycott companies, including some multi-national corporations that it says directly or indirectly finance whaling.

Greenpeace International oceans activist Frode Pleym says the Japanese are apathetic about the issue because they do not know the details.

"You have a small number of people, namely within the Japanese fisheries industry, dependent on this policy going on," he said. "And I think when Japanese people increasingly learn about that they will not only continue to not eat whale meat, but they will, eventually, oppose it politically."

But the message the public is currently receiving from the government's "Delicious Whales" campaign is that

Japan's hunting of the animals does not endanger their survival and that eating whales is part of their national heritage.

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