Some Japanese say the right to hunt and eat them is key to national pride—and as important as sex

Wholesale buyers and curious onlookers pack Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market at the break of day, scrambling to stay clear of men in rubber boots slopping buckets of bloody water. There are vats of squid and tubs of eel and whole tuna the size of human torsos. Just about any water-dwelling thing can be found at Tsukiji, the world’s largest fish market. Except fresh whale.

Old whale meat is available at a few specialty stores, but prices are steep, buyers mutter, because of foreign intervention. Hunks of deep-red stomach flesh cost $15 per lb.; plastic-wrapped blubber “bacon” goes for $4 a slice. It’s what’s left of last year’s kill, says a merchant; April’s catch has yet to come in.

And come it will, despite the foreigners. Commercial whaling has been banned worldwide since 1986, but a loophole allows Japan to bag up to 500 whales a year, ostensibly for scientific purposes. Some end up in Tsukiji. Most of those caught are minke whales, recently dubbed the “cockroach of the ocean” by Masayuki Komatsu, an official in the Agriculture and Fisheries Ministry. During an interview on Australian TV, Komatsu also said Japan uses foreign aid to buy the votes of poorer nations on the International Whaling Commission.

That admission was the buzz of last week’s annual IWC conference in London. Delegates from Australia, New Zealand and Britain squawked their disapproval, but Japan remained defiant, arguing for an end to the ban on commercial whaling. That dramatic step was not put to a vote. Still, with the support of aid-assisted allies like Antigua and Dominica, Japan managed to block proposed whaling sanctuaries in southern Pacific and southern Atlantic waters. Though continued international condemnation is assured, few doubt that Japan will go right on harpooning. “That’s what we can’t understand,” says Fred O’Regan, president of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). “Why would a great nation like Japan take such a worldwide pounding for a nothing industry?”

Because to Japan, whales are not nothing. Not every Japanese loves eating whale meat, but enough do for the government to set its face against a ban on whaling. Ironically, Americans are responsible for introducing whale meat into daily fare. After World War II, General Douglas MacArthur told Japanese to hunt the mammals as a cheap source of protein. Back then, every bit was used-blubber for soap, oil and medicine, bristly teeth for pipes. People ate whales’ chins, tongues and testicles.

And then the whales began to disappear. “For a long time, we denied it—even to ourselves,” says Isao Kondo, who ran three whaling companies and now regrets his past role. “We do not need to eat whales,” he says. Indeed, few Japanese do. In a poll by British researchers MORI last year, 61% of Japanese said they had not tasted whale since childhood.

Whale meat is dark and chewy. At one of the few remaining restaurants specializing in whale, Kujiraya (Whale Shop), in the hip Tokyo district of Shibuya, the meat comes lightly breaded and deep-fried, cured or as fatty bits doused in wasabi and mayonnaise. On a recent night, salarymen packed the eatery. Shuji Yoshida, 32, hasn’t had whale since grade school, but only because it’s hard to find. “I still crave it,” he says. “No matter how little we eat it, it’s still a deeply Japanese food. Telling Japanese not to eat whale is like telling us not to eat rice.” Naoki Kimino, 42, adds, “It’s like telling us not to have sex.” For government officials, policy is shaped less by the magic of blubber and more by resentment at being bossed around by foreigners. Protests by animal-rights supporters “are worst of all,” says Shiro Yuge, councillor in the ministry’s fisheries division. Groups like Greenpeace and IFAW have embarrassed Japanese authorities with DNA tests showing that some meat on the market comes not from minkes but from more endangered species. (The tests also showed that some “whale meat” is actually horse.) For the record, Yuge rejects those findings. But he adds, “That just shows you how much whale meat is in demand.” Save the Whale activists find such arguments laughable. But whale is serious cuisine. Every bite is an act of patriotism.

(adapted from TIME)