Even as the International Whaling Commission started its annual meeting in Portugal on Monday, certain Tokyo bars and restaurants have sought to lure patrons with a new spread of exotic whale dishes.
On the menu, alongside local staples such as whale sashimi, were new creations including whale spring rolls, whale bacon and even an Italian cheese whale cutlet -- all served with a dollop of local whaling history.
Advertisement"Whale meat is a very important part of Japanese tradition," said Masanobu Tai, the restaurateur leading the promotional drive in the Noge district of the port city of Yokohama, an area of narrow lanes filled with bars and eateries.
"If whaling is not done to excess, I think this is a great thing... Whale meat is delicious, high in protein, low in fat," he added as staff in his pork cutlet restaurant dished up a new treat, whale dumplings.
Anti-whaling nations led by Australia and New Zealand, as well as environmental groups, have attacked Japan for its annual whaling expeditions, including in Antarctic waters, criticising them as cruel and unnecessary.
Japan hunts whales by using a loophole in a 1986 IWC moratorium on commercial whaling that allows "lethal research," and Tokyo often accuses western critics of insensitivity toward its traditions.
Tai said he and others were trying to celebrate that tradition in Yokohama, which this year marks 150 years since it opened its doors to the world in an era when American traders and whalers led the push to enter Japanese ports.
"When we opened the history books of the city, we learned that whale was very much part of it," Tai said, adding that whale meat sold in the local black market in the lean post-World War II years was a precious source of protein.
"I think Japan should protect our culture within the framework of the IWC while seeking understanding in the international community," he said.
"Not many people eat whale any more," Tai conceded. "Some people come to our restaurants to remember the past. Some people bring their younger colleagues from work to taste whale," Tai said.
A 2008 survey by the Nikkei business newspaper found that only 12 percent of Japanese in their 20s eat whale meat.
The Worldwide Fund for Nature in a report last week charged that Japan, as well as Norway, has been wasting millions of dollars in taxpayer money to sustain whaling, which it said was likely a loss-making industry.
Hopes were muted for much progress on reaching compromise on whaling and conservation at the IWC meeting starting Monday on Portugal's Madeira island. The focus of talks is now whether to allow Tokyo to conduct commercial whaling near its coast if it scales down its Antarctic hunt.