Japan introduces whale meat vending machines to encourage sales

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YOKOHAMA, Japan (AP) — A Japanese whaling operator, after years of struggling to promote its controversial products, has found a new way to cultivate customers and increase sales: meat vending machines of whales.

The Kujira (Whale) Store, an unmanned store recently opened in the port city of Yokohama near Tokyo, features three vending machines selling whale sashimi, whale bacon, whale skin and whale steak. whales, and canned whale meat with prices starting at 1,000 yen ($7.70). ) for 3,000 yen ($23).

The outlet features white vending machines decorated with cartoon whales and is the third to be launched in Japan’s capital region. It opened on Tuesday after two others were launched in Tokyo earlier this year as part of Kyodo Senpaku Co.’s new sales offensive.

Whale meat has long been a source of controversy, but sales in the new vending machines have quietly started well, says the operator. Protests against whaling have subsided since Japan halted its highly-critical research hunt in Antarctica three years ago and resumed commercial whaling off the coast. coasts of Japan.

Kyodo Senpaku hopes to expand the vending machines to 100 locations across the country in five years, company spokesman Konomu Kubo told The Associated Press. The fourth is expected to open in Osaka next month.

The idea is to open vending machines near supermarkets, where whale meat is not typically available, to cultivate demand, a vital task for the survival of the industry.

Major supermarket chains have largely stayed away from whale meat to avoid protests from anti-whaling groups, and appear to remain cautious, although harassment by activists has decreased in the last few years, said Kubo.

“As a result, many consumers who want to eat it cannot find or buy whale meat. We have introduced vending machines in unmanned stores for these people,” he said.

According to company officials, sales at the two Tokyo stores were significantly higher than expected, keeping staff busy replenishing products.

At the store in Yokohama’s Motomachi district, an upscale shopping district near Chinatown, 61-year-old shopper Mami Kashiwabara went straight for her father’s favorite whale oil. To her disappointment, it was sold out, so she settled on frozen onomi, a tail meat that is considered a rare delicacy.

Kashiwabara says she is aware of the whaling controversy, but this whale meat brings back childhood memories of eating it at family dinners and school lunches.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea to kill whales senselessly. But whale meat is part of Japanese food culture, and we can respect the lives of whales by appreciating their meat,” said Kashiwabara. “I’ll be happy if I can eat.”

Kashiwabara said she plans to share her purchase of 3,000 yen ($23) a handy piece, neatly wrapped in a freezer bag, with her husband over sake.

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, ending 30 years of so-called research whaling, which had been criticized by conservationists as a cover for commercial hunting banned by the IWC in 1988.

As part of its commercial hunt in Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone, Japan caught 270 whales last year, less than 80% of the quota and less than the number it once hunted in the program of his research in Antarctica and the Pacific Northwest.

While conservation groups have condemned the continuation of commercial whaling, some see it as a way to adapt the government’s lavish and expensive whaling program to changing times and tastes.

In a show of determination to keep the whaling industry going for decades to come, Kyodo Senpaku will begin construction of a new 6 billion yen ($46 million) mother ship, which is due to be launched next year to replace the aging Nisshin Maru.

But uncertainty remains.

Whaling is losing support in other whaling nations such as Iceland, where whaling has cut catches in recent years amid criticism that commercial whaling it is damaging their national image and tourism.

Whales may also be moving away from Japan’s shores due to a lack of saury, a staple of their diet, and other fish, possibly due to the effects of climate change, Kubo said.

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 data from the Fisheries Administration .

However, conservative lawmakers strongly support commercial whaling and meat consumption as part of Japan’s cultural tradition.

Conservationists say whale meat is no longer part of the daily diet in Japan, especially for younger generations.

Whale meat was an affordable source of protein in Japan’s post-World War II malnutrition years, with annual consumption of 233,000 tons in 1962.

The whale was quickly replaced by other types of meat. Whale meat supplies fell to 6,000 tonnes in 1986, a year before the moratorium imposed by the IWC on commercial whaling banned the hunting of several species of whales.

Research whaling, which has been criticized as a cover for commercial hunting because the meat is sold on the market, catches up to 1,200 whales a year in Japan. Since then it has drastically reduced its catch after international protests escalated and domestic supplies and consumption of whale meat decreased.

The annual meat supply varied between 3,000 and 5,000 tonnes, including imports from Norway and Iceland. The amount dropped further in 2019 to 2,000 tons, or 20 grams (less than an ounce) of whale meat per person per year, according to Department of Fisheries statistics.

Whaling officials have attributed the drop in supply over the past three years to a lack of imports due to the pandemic and plan to nearly double this year’s supply with imports more than 2,500 tons from Iceland.

Japan has succeeded in getting the only remaining whaling company in Iceland to hunt whales only for shipment to Japan, whaling officials said. Iceland caught only one minke whale in the 2021 season, according to the IWC.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare has criticized Iceland’s export to Japan, saying it is “opposed to all commercial whaling as it is inherently cruel”.

With the outlook for imports uncertain, Kyodo Senpaku wants the government to raise Japan’s annual catch quota to a level that can supply around 5,000 tons, the level that Kubo says is the limit for sustaining the -industry.

“Eight long, I think it will be difficult to maintain the industry at the current supply levels,” said Kubo. “We need to expand both supply and demand, both of which have decreased.”

Due to the extremely limited supply, whale meat processing may not be a viable business and may not last for generations to come, he added.

Yuki Okoshi, who started serving whale meat dishes at his Japanese-style seafood restaurant three years ago when commercial whaling made higher quality whale meat available, said who hopes that whale meat supplies will stabilize.

Noting the dwindling supply of whale meat in recent years, Okoshi said, “The future of the whaling industry depends on customers needing us, and perhaps restaurants like us, who are closest to consumers, they are the key to survival.”

“Whaling may be a political issue, but the relationships between the restaurant and our customers are very simple,” Okoshi said. “We serve good food at reasonable prices and the customers are happy. That’s all there is.”

Mari Yamaguchi and Kwiyeon Ha, The Associated Press


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