Cetacean Society International

Whales Alive! - Vol. XVI No. 4 - October 2007

Toxic Japanese School Lunches:
Assemblymen from Taiji Condemn Practice
and Sound Warning

Text and photos by Deborah Adams, CSI Board

Japanese officials for the first time have made a public statement condemning the consumption of dolphin meat, particularly in school lunches. Two prominent Assemblymen from Taiji, Junichiro Yamashita and Hisato Yono, said samples of dolphin meat purchased from local supermarkets contained mercury levels 10 to 16 times the government limit.

Public health officials worldwide recognize that mercury is toxic, and should not be consumed by women that are pregnant, nursing or may become pregnant. But Japan officially continues to subsidize and promote toxic cetacean meat as a food source for everyone, including children! As the whale-consuming public ages and demand for cetacean meat declines, Japanese fisheries ministry officials have been pushing to expand their base of consumers by creating a new generation of cetacean meat-eaters through school lunch programs. Yamashita strongly denounced these plans and said the school lunch program was like feeding children "toxic waste".

Why is their action historic? Because it is very unusual for anyone in Japan's culture to speak out against government policy, or potentially impact the livelihoods of anyone, such as the cetacean fishermen in Taiji. There is a saying in Japan that "the nail that sticks up must be pounded down". Any public statements that challenge government policy or other culturally accepted norms are historic.

As pressure builds against the two men, however, some are cynical about their agenda. Do they really object to the Taiji town council's plans to build a $3 million dollar dolphin processing plant? Are their actions a calculated attempt to acquiesce to international criticism and Japanese citizens' concern over cetacean meat consumption, while ensuring the drives continue to supply the captivity trade? The captivity industry is extremely lucrative, and if income from cetacean meat declines, due to human health concerns and lack of demand, are they just trying to keep the captivity trade alive?

Dolphin captivity cages - Taiji, Japan

Dolphin captivity cages - Taiji, Japan

Taiji is proud to be known as the birthplace of Japan's whaling industry and the historical center of Japan's traditional whaling culture. Today Taiji and Futo are the only two towns that actively drive-hunt dolphins and small whales. The worldwide image of the entire nation is affected by what happens here. During a timeframe permitted by the government the hunt starts when a pod of dolphins is sighted within range, and a fleet of small boats surrounds them. With fishermen banging on metal pipes, the boats drive the dolphins into a bay. Nets are drawn, trapping the dolphins and squeezing them into shallow water, where the pod is sorted and hacked to death by men slicing their throats, while the more desirable ones are selected for dolphin captivity training and sale to aquariums and swim-with programs around the world.

CSI cannot accept the cultural perspectives that justify the drives to the government, and many people in Taiji and Futo. We condemn the drive hunts altogether, as the killing is inhumane and unjustified, and the sale of toxic foods is reprehensible. But the media is beginning to make the general public aware of the drives and the health issue, and CSI is grateful to the two Assemblymen for ensuring media attention and public concern. What else will it have to take to compel an official response to the health issue, and in time stop the drives altogether?

Taiji holding pens

Approximately 2,300 of an estimated 20,000 dolphins hunted annually
are slaughtered at the fishing town of Taiji. While some are sent to aquariums,
others are butchered and sold in local supermarkets.

Taiji Whale Meat Shop

Taiji Whale Meat Shop

Background - Russian roulette with food safety

While there is a growing body of evidence that cetacean meat is increasingly polluted and not fit for human consumption, toxin levels are not measured for cetacean meat sold to the Japanese public. Japanese consumers, who normally are very aware of food safety issues, are being forced to play Russian roulette with their health, especially children and women who may become pregnant. Not all cetacean meat carries high levels of pollutants. Minke whales from Arctic waters, for example, do not test as high as other coastal or pelagic whales, dolphins, and porpoises, but how does the public know that what they are eating is safe? Some of the meat has even been mislabeled as to species!

Cetacean meat products for sale

Cetacean meat products for sale in Taiji "Kujira" shop

Cetacean meat ready for sale

Cetacean meat ready for sale

Chemical pollutants and Cetacean meat

Two main classes of pollutants have been found in cetacean meat: organic pollutants, including Organochlorines such as PCB's and DDT, which are long-lived chemicals that tend to accumulate in fatty tissues; and heavy metals like Mercury. Heavy metals are not biodegradable. They have long biological half-lives and also accumulate in tissues. Mercury is of the greatest concern as it is transformed in the marine environment to methyl mercury, which makes it even more toxic.

Toxins accumulate in the marine environment through industrial combustion processes, waste water run off and dumping of garbage, although there are limited natural sources as well. Cetaceans, like humans, are particularly susceptible due to our physiology, primarily due to the presence of fat cells that absorb and store chemicals.

While it is difficult to establish a direct cause-and-effect relationship between exposure to polluted cetacean meat and human health there is data that correlates the presence of PCB's, DDT and Mercury in humans, with learning and cognitive development disorders, weakened immune systems, reproductive failure, cancers and endocrine disruptions. Many PCB's also are estrogen imitators which make them even more damaging to women, as high levels of estrogen have been linked with various forms of cancer.

From a cetacean perspective, studies indicate the orca populations in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. and Canada are some of the most polluted mammals in the world. Dead orcas that wash up on shore have to be removed by Hazmat teams and treated as toxic waste. There are also links between chemical pollution and cancer in the resident beluga whale population that occupies the St. Lawrence Seaway in British Columbia. They are hazardous waste under Canadian law.

If cetaceans, mammals with physiological similarities to humans, are dying from pollution-related illnesses and cancers, one would surmise that consumption of those species could potentially impact human health as well. We are just beginning to connect the dots. It is ironic to think that in the end, whaling may be stopped because humans have polluted the seas to the point where whales are now toxic to humans.

Consumption Warnings

The Faeroe Islands government has recognized the negative health impacts related to consumption of cetacean products. In 1998 the Faroese Food and Environment Agency recommended that, due to high levels of mercury and PCB's, pilot whale products and internal organs should not be consumed, and women planning to have children should not consume whale meat more than twice a month.

Culturally speaking, pollution and food purity is a major concern in Japan, but the people may not be warned about harmful products. In the 1950's, the coastal waters around Minamata, Japan, were poisoned with mercury due to industrial run off from a local factory. Over 3,000 people who ate seafood from the town's coastal waters were sickened with mercury poising and suffered permanent harm. Yet, because of cultural constraints, "Minamata", as it is known, is not discussed within Japan. The victims of this poisoning live as shut-ins, fearful of embarrassment and exposure to the general public. Now with cetacean meat, the potential exists again that Japan is actively poisoning their younger generation in the interest of keeping the archaic and inhumane practice of cetacean hunting, including whaling and drive fisheries.


The IWC has passed several resolutions calling for further research and study into this issue, and has stated that "scientific evidence demonstrates that some communities may be faced with heath problems arising from the high levels or organic contaminants and heavy metals present in those (cetacean) products in their diet". (IWC 1999, Resolution on health effects from the consumption of cetaceans. IWC/1999/4).

Many NGO's have been supporting and pushing this issue onto the IWC's agenda, as well as generating public and media awareness. Sakae Hemmi from the Elsa Nature Conservancy has been at the forefront of keeping this issue alive within Japan's borders, and a constant source of help and inspiration to CSI and other organizations worldwide. Hardy Jones, of BlueVoice.org, has devoted decades of his life to this issue, including educating the public with his TV documentaries he created as a response to witnessing several horrific drive kill events in Japan. CSI has been proud to support both Sakae and Hardy in their work. Many other NGO's work on this issue, not only as women's and children's health initiatives, but also because we believe it will decrease the demand for whale meat and thus stop the commercial side of this bloody business.

The Taiji Assemblymen's comments represent the internal dialogue that although contrary to Japan's government position, is necessary to create lasting cultural change more in harmony with the prevailing world view. Fundamental shifts in attitudes and behaviors will occur only via internal exchange, not outside pressure and condemnation. Japan, in view of its culture, history, and island mentality does not respond well to outside pressure, particularly from western, anti-whaling NGO's. While justified, the strategy of many western NGO's of criticizing Japan's whaling activity may have helped further entrench Japan's nationalistic argument even while raising global awareness of their barbaric practices.

Ultimately it may take the younger generation and the mothers in Japan to be the keys to cultural change and to end whaling. By pushing the human health message forward within Japan, focusing attention on the health of Japan's children, and supporting outspoken assemblymen like Yamashita and Yono there is hope. If we are to see whaling stop in Japan in our lifetime, it has to happen because of an internal grass roots movement, and consumption and food safety concerns may just be the catalyst for that change. Perhaps this is the issue women of Japan can rally around and support. The health of their children is at stake. How can anyone refute that?

Go to next article: Boston Dolphin Day Protest or: Table of Contents.

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