In Japan, you can buy whale. They sell it in some, but not all, supermarkets. You can order in select restaurants. Even Katy Perry came across it recently and has the Instagram photo to prove it.

While in Japan this month, the pop singer hung out with sumo wrestlers and visited Tokyo Disneyland. She also uploaded a photo of “raw pounded whale,” writing “How I feel on the reg 😑❗️🎌🎎🎌❗️(also calm down I didn’t put that thing in my mouff 🙅)“

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The image has been liked over 260,000 times on her Instagram account, with over six thousand comments, many of which were a mess. Some Instagram users thought she ate whale, while others wondered why she didn’t eat it. Then there were those who expressed a love of eating whale meat. Then, there were those saying Perry is criticizing another country’s culture.

[Photo: Katy Perry | Instagram]

Among some in Japan, whale meat is viewed as a traditional food, and there’s evidence that suggests Japanese people have been eating whale for thousands of years. During the 20th century, Japanese children were served whale as part of school lunches. Entire generations grew up eating it. Afer World War II, for example, half of the meat consumed in Japan was whale.

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These days, however, it’s a less common dish. But I have heard that some schools still occasionally serve it. And as mentioned above, you can find whale sashimi, whale bacon, and canned whale meat in certain supermarkets. It’s not everywhere, like beef or chicken or salmon or tuna. And not every Japanese person eats whale! Or even, has eaten it.

[Photo: Brian Ashcraft | Twitter]

This is canned whale meat at the supermarket near my house. In Japanese, “kujira” (鯨) means “whale.”

Over on Japanese website Girls Channel, which has a voting system that allows for “liking” comments, there is a range of reactions to Perry’s photo. One of the most common is wondering why Westerners think it’s okay to eat cows and chickens, but don’t think it’s okay to eat whale. “Say this after white people stop eating beef and pork,” one Girls Channel user directed at Katy Perry. That remark netted over 1,200 likes.

A common reply to that is whaling puts these animals at risk of extinction—to which, some point out that Japan usually hunts the minke whale, and that whale’s conservation status is listed as “least concern.” Meaning? It’s not endangered. To which, people reply that this is because there are laws against whaling. The reply to that is often that Japan has quotas and regulations about how whales can be hunted, thus, protecting the overall population. And so on and so forth, and you end up in a seemingly endless argument.

Another comment you hear is that this is an example of Westerners not respecting Japanese culture and trying to enforce their own values. Unpack that some more, and you get some in Japan saying that this particular topic is used as a way for Westerners to make racist comments about what Japanese people eat or about the country’s culture. A quick read of the comments on Katy Perry’s Instagram does show a bit of that.

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The whaling controversy offers a fascinating insight. In Japanese culture, there is a preoccupation with what others think. How you are viewed is important. People take great care in how they present themselves, whether that’s the area where they live or the place that they work. Appearances matter.

Yet, on some issues, some in Japan do not care about what others think—especially what foreigners think. If anything, those outside opinions do not matter. What does matter is what Japanese people think. You know what? The vast majority of Japanese people don’t really think about whale meat. They don’t even eat it on a regular basis. They have their own lives and their own concerns. Whale meat is not high on them. Family. Work. Health. Those are.

But! Over on Girls Channel, you do see comments like, “Foreigners have no right to criticize.” That remark netted over 1,700 likes on Girls Channel. Or comments like, “This is Japanese culture. This is none of your business.” That remark got over 1,300 likes. “Huh? I always think this, but foreigners need to keep their mouths shut about Japanese culture.” That comment racked up over 2,600 likes.

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You get the feeling that we’re no longer talking about whale meat, but rather, about being autonomous and exercising control. That’s important for many in Japan, because while the country does spend a lot on its self-defense force, this is a nation that does not have complete control over its own national security. Seemingly smaller things then become amplified and exacerbated, causing nationalism to rear its head. I don’t think this attitude is unique to Japan, and people can always be sensitive to outside criticism.

The sticking point is that these animals don’t only live in Japanese waters. This is a global ocean and a global matter. I do agree that the issue is often simplified or used to demonize Japan. Instagram and Twitter photos don’t quite offer the nuance needed to tackle it. Shocking, I know. But I also wonder how many young Japanese are even interested in eating whale meat. Or even care. Or has the dish come to symbolize something else entirely?

Top photo: Katy Perry | Instagram

To contact the author of this post, write to bashcraftATkotaku.com or find him on Twitter@Brian_Ashcraft.

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