Monday's lunch was interesting. I wandered back to the teachers' room after 4th period to get a drink and wait for the kids to come get me for lunch. At the elementary schools, I eat lunch with one of the classes of the grade I teach that day, so they can pepper me with the same questions about how tall I am, if I'm married, or when my birthday is. So I walk into the room and some of the teachers are putting food onto trays for the teachers to eat in the staff room, and one of them is plucking these brown fried fillets and plopping them into a dish. I asked her what they were, and she replied, "kujira," or whale.
Actually, when I tried it at lunch, it wasn't all that bad, although it was cold and the congealed grease made it not terribly appetizing. Most of the kids didn't even seem to be aware of what they were eating. The 12-year-old boy next to me said it was fish, and when I asked if it might not be whale he said, "tabun." Maybe. Then he shrugged and downed the rest of it. The taste wasn't that bad. I have to say it wasn't exactly appealing, but it wasn't any worse than cold KFC that had been left in the fridge. But I took a couple bites and pushed it off to one side to finish my mochi rice cakes.
This was my first experience with whale, although it can be found at several restaurants. One of my favorite yakitori shops offers whale bacon, something I've never gotten up the courage to eat.
Japan has a long history of whaling. It started out as a nutritional supplement for the Ainu (a different race of people that were pushed into the north of Hokkaido and were killed off or assimilated), kind of like the Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest, though without a religious tradition behind it. After WWII, when food - particularly protein - was extremely scarce, the US encouraged Japan to turn to whaling for its protein needs. After Japan's rapid growth, it didn't really need it, but the fleet was still sent out as the owners were/are politically connected and receive huge subsidies. Nowadays, most people don't eat it - those who do do it as a sort of nostalgia for their childhood when it was widely served in school lunches. All that excess whale that's caught is typically turned into pet food here, a very sad ending that could easily be replaced by soy products - lord knows they eat enough soy here.