May 2, 2005

Whale Meat Returns to Japanese School Lunch

TOKYO, (AFP) -- Served as burgers and marinated with sweet and sour sauce, whale meat has returned to Japanese school lunches 20 years after it went off the menu amid global anti-whaling campaigns, officials said.

Nearly 85 percent of public elementary and junior high schools in Wakayama, Japan's western whaling heartland, have begun whale meat lunches with school officials receiving positive responses from children.

"Whale meat is served as burgers or meat balls or marinated with sweet and sour sauce so that children can eat it easily. Children say it is really tasty," said Wakayama education official Tetsuji Sawada.

"The purpose of having whale meat lunch is to let our children know Japanese whaling tradition and whale food culture," he said, adding 57,900 children were enjoying the lunch in the prefecture, 450 kilometers (280 miles) west of Tokyo.

International whaling was banned in 1982 with environmentalists arguing that whale populations were declining and that the hunt was cruel. Whale, a traditional part of the Japanese diet, went off nearly all school menus.

Since 1987 Japan has used a loophole in the global moratorium and killed smaller minke whales for what it calls research. The estimated 2,000 tonnes of meat from each year's cull ends up in supermarkets and restaurants across Japan.

But Sawada said such whale meat was too expensive for school lunch and the Wakayama educational office lobbied for months with Japan's Fisheries Agency to lower meat prices.

"There was demand for whale meat but we simply could not afford it for school lunches. Before, the price of 100 grams (three 1/2 ounces) whale meat cost about 500 yen (four dollars), but now it costs about 125 yen, equivalent to that of chicken and pork," he said.

"Thanks to the help from the government, we were able to offer whale meat for our children," Sawada said.

Japan argues that research shows that whale populations are thriving and provides data showing whales are consuming valuable fish stocks -- points disputed by environmentalists.

Japan says the global ban is disrespectful of its culture. Tokyo reportedly plans to tell an international meeting that begins May 30 in     South Korea that it will start killing two larger species of whale considered endangered by the World Conservation Union.