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Excess whale meat being fed to school children in Japan; 'whale meat tastes horrible'

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TOKYO, Japan -- Japan has enticed children with whale burger school lunches, sung the praises of the red meat in colorful pamphlets, and declared whale hunting "a national heritage."

The result is an unprecedented glut of whale meat. Prices — once about $15 a pound — are plunging, inventories are bursting, and promoters are scrambling to get Japanese to eat more whale.

"To put it simply, whale meat tastes horrible," said 30-year-old Kosuke Nakamura, one of the diners at a Hana No Mai restaurant in Tokyo who turned their noses up at whale meat.

And while few Japanese voice environmental concerns over hunting whales, some younger people say it has brought the country unfavorable publicity.

Some 1,035 tons of whale meat hit the market in Japan last year, a 65 percent increase from 1995, the Fisheries Agency says. And sluggish demand means inventories have almost doubled in five years to 2,704 tons in 2004.

But the glut of whale meat hasn‘t stopped the harpoon guns. Tokyo plans to kill — under a research program — some 1,070 minke whales in 2006, over 400 more than last year. Japan will also hunt 10 fin whales, and a total of 160 Bryde‘s, sei and sperm whales, fisheries official Kenji Masuda said.

The International Whaling Commission banned commercial whaling in 1986, approving limited hunts for research purposes a year later. Opponents have called Japan‘s hunts merely a way for it to dodge the whaling ban.

The government, which distributes the meat and uses profits to fund research, is working to promote whale meat and secure new distribution channels.

"Even if we capture 2,000 whales a year for 100 years, it‘s OK because whale numbers are growing," the pamphlet says.

Some local governments have begun offering whale meat in school lunches.

Wakayama, a prefecture with a whale-hunting tradition 280 miles southwest of Tokyo, has been aggressive in getting youngsters to eat whale, introducing whale meals at 270 public schools in 2005.

Nutritionists have even developed child-friendly whale dishes, including whale meatballs, hamburgers and whale spaghetti bolognese, said Tetsuji Sawada of Wakayama‘s education board.

Chimney Co., which runs the Hana No Mai eateries, acknowledges customers are wary of new whale dishes.

Still, Hana No Mai will keep selling whale meat. And a trader at one of Tsukiji market‘s biggest wholesalers, Daito Gyorui Co., was equally optimistic.

"The fall in prices is a good thing because it will make whale meat more accessible," Yoshiaki Kochi said. "Japanese will never forget the taste of whale. It‘s part of our culture. It‘s in our DNA."

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