YOKOHAMA, Japan (AP) - A Japanese whaling operator, after struggling for years to promote its controversial products, has found a new way to cultivate clientele and bolster sales: whale meat vending machines.
The Kujira (Whale) Store, an unmanned outlet that recently opened in the port town of Yokohama near Tokyo, houses three machines for whale sashimi, whale bacon, whale skin and whale steak, as well as canned whale meat at prices from 1,000 yen ($7.70) to 3,000 yen ($23).
The outlet features white vending machines decorated with cartoon whales and is the third to launch in the Japanese capital region. It opened Tuesday after two others were introduced in Tokyo earlier this year as part of Kyodo Senpaku Co.'s new sales drive.
Whale meat has long been a source of controversy but sales in the new vending machines have quietly gotten off to a good start, the operator says. Anti-whaling protests have subsided since Japan three years ago terminated its much-criticized research hunts in the Antarctic and resumed commercial whaling off the Japanese coasts.
Kyodo Senpaku hopes to expand the vending machines to 100 locations across the country in five years, company spokesperson Konomu Kubo told The Associated Press. A fourth is set to open in Osaka next month.
The idea is to open vending machines near supermarkets, where whale meat is usually not available, to cultivate demand, a task crucial for the industry's survival.
Major supermarket chains have largely stayed away from whale meat to avoid protests by anti-whaling groups, and they seem to remain cautious even though harassment from activists has subsided in recent years, Kubo said.
"As a result, many consumers who want to eat it cannot find or buy whale meat. We launched vending machines at unmanned stores for those people," he said.
Company officials say sales at the two outlets in Tokyo have been significantly higher than expected, keeping staff busy replenishing products.
At the store in the Motomachi district of Yokohama, a posh shopping area near Chinatown, 61-year-old customer Mami Kashiwabara went straight for whale bacon, her father's favorite. To her disappointment it was sold out, so she settled for frozen onomi, tail meat that is regarded as a rare delicacy.
Kashiwabara says she is aware of the whaling controversy but that whale meat brings back her childhood memories of eating it at family dinners and school lunches.
"I don't think it's good to kill whales meaninglessly. But whale meat is part of Japanese food culture and we can respect the lives of whales by appreciating their meat," Kashiwabara said. "I would be happy if I can eat it."
Kashiwabara said she planned to share her purchase of a 3,000 yen ($23) handy-size chunk, neatly wrapped in a freezer bag, with her husband over sake.
The meat mostly comes from whales caught off Japan's northeastern coast.
Japan resumed commercial whaling in July 2019 after withdrawing from the International Whaling Commission, ending 30 years of what it called research whaling, which had been criticized by conservationists as a cover for commercial hunts banned by the IWC in 1988.
Under its commercial whaling in the Japanese exclusive economic zone, Japan last year caught 270 whales, less than 80% of the quota and fewer than the number it once hunted in the Antarctic and the northwestern Pacific in its research program.
While conservation groups condemned the resumption of commercial whaling, some see it as a way to let the government's embattled and expensive whaling program adapt to changing times and tastes.
In a show of determination to keep the whaling industry alive in the coming decades, Kyodo Senpaku will start construction on a 6 billion yen ($46 million) new mother ship 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 whalers have cut back on catches in recent years amid criticism that commercial hunts are hurting their national image and tourism.
Whales may also be moving away from the Japanese coasts due to a scarcity of saury, a staple of their diet, and other fish possibly due to the impact of climate change, Kubo said.
Whaling in Japan involves only a few hundred people and one operator and accounted for less than 0.1% of total meat consumption in recent years, according to Fisheries Agency data.
Still, conservative governing lawmakers staunchly support commercial whaling and consumption of the meat 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 during Japan's undernourished years after World War II, with annual consumption peaking at 233,000 tons in 1962.
Whale was quickly replaced by other meats. The whale meat supply fell to 6,000 tons in 1986, the year before the moratorium on commercial whaling imposed by the IWC banned the hunting of several whale species.
Under the research whaling, criticized as a cover for commercial hunts because the meat was sold on the market, Japan caught as many as 1,200 whales annually. It has since drastically cut back its catch after international protests escalated and whale meat supply and consumption slumped at home.
Annual meat supply had fluctuated in a range of 3,000-5,000 tons, including imports from Norway and Iceland. The amount further fell in 2019 to 2,000 tons, or 20 grams (less than 1 ounce) of whale meat per person a year, the Fisheries Agency statistics show.
Whaling officials attributed the shrinking supply in the past three years to the absence of imports due to the pandemic, and plan to nearly double this year's supply with imports of more than 2,500 tons from Iceland.
Japan managed to get Iceland's only remaining whaling company to hunt whales exclusively for shipment to Japan, whaling officials said. Iceland caught only one minke whale in the 2021 season, according to the IWC.
Criticizing Iceland's export to Japan, the International Fund for Animal Welfare said it "opposes all commercial whaling as it is inherently cruel."
With uncertain outlook for imports, Kyodo Senpaku wants the government to raise Japan's annual catch quota to levels that can supply about 5,000 tons, the level Kubo describes as the threshold to maintain the industry.
"From a long-term perspective, I think it would be difficult to sustain the industry at the current supply levels," Kubo said. "We must expand both supply and demand, which have both shrunk."
With the extremely limited supply, whale meat processing cannot be a viable business and may not last for the next generations, he added.
Yuki Okoshi, who started serving whale meat dishes at his Japanese-style seafood restaurant three years ago when higher quality whale meat became available under commercial whaling, said he hopes whale meat supply will stabilize.
Okoshi noted dwindling whale meat supply in recent years and said "the future of the whale industry depends on whether customers need us, and perhaps restaurants like us that are closest to consumers hold the key to survival."
"Whaling can be a political issue, but relationships between the restaurant and our customers is very simple," Okoshi said. "We serve good food at reasonable prices and customers are happy. That's all there is to it."