Japan from the inside out

South Korea: Where there’s a will, there’s a way to eat whale

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, June 19, 2008

“The Whale Festival was ironic. I’m really envious of Japan, where they can openly eat the meat from whales they catch in their scientific surveys.” – A South Korean restaurant proprietor

TAKE A QUICK GLANCE at the two photos with this post: Don’t they seem as if they might have been taken at a centuries-old festival in a Japanese whaling town? Then take a closer look, particularly at the priest’s headgear. The photographs actually came from the annual whaling festival that’s been held in Ulsan, South Korea, for more than 10 years now.

The Koreans love their whale meat just as much as the Japanese do, but they have a harder time getting it due to stringent domestic regulations on whaling. But where there’s an appetite, there’s a way, as this summary of an article written by Kamiya Yukiko that ran in the Nishinippon Shimbun makes clear.

There’s more here that will remind of you Japan than just the photos. Some of the things the Koreans told Ms. Kamiya could have been uttered word for word by many Japanese!


Fish poaching is rampant in the waters off the Korean peninsula, and the authorities have their hands full uncovering the illegal operations. In Ulsan, the southeastern city that was once the country’s largest whaling port, many people are calling for amendments to relax the tough Korean restrictions.

The city’s southern ward is home to about 40 shops serving whale meat. During the local whale festival held in May, chefs and restaurant proprietors from Shimonoseki, the home port of the Japanese scientific whaling fleet just across the Korean Strait, came to participate in a Japanese-Korean food tasting event. The Japanese contributed sukiyaki and curried rice, while the Koreans served boiled whale meat and sashimi.

Ko Jong-gu, the chairman of the local civic group that sponsored the festival, said it was organized to protect the local whale eating culture.

“The fishing industry is suffering because the number of whales is increasing and they are eating the local mackerel and squid. We want to the government to lift some of its restrictions on whaling.”

The chief municipal officer of the city’s southern ward, Kim Du-gyom, declared:

“South Korea prohibits the fishing of dolphins less than four meters in length. We’re going to start a petition drive to get the government to amend the law.”

The International Whaling Commission temporarily suspended commercial whaling for 13 species of larger whales in 1982. South Korea overlaid that with additional restrictions on the commercial whaling of smaller species. But whales can still wind up on restaurant tables if they are obtained as by-catch (accidentally caught in nets with other fish), or if they died and were washed up on shore. The restaurants must file an application with the authorities to serve them, and applications have risen from 190 in 2000 to 606 last year.

Because a single whale can sell for as much as 35 million won (about $US 34,200), the local fisherman refer to a whale catch as “the ocean lottery”. Illegal fishing is rampant in southeast Korea, and since the end of last year the Korean Coast Guard has snagged 80 fishermen in their dragnet. That has resulted in a reduced supply of whale meat, which in turn has forced restaurants to offer smaller servings. The whale meat shortage is viewed as the reason for the start of the petition drive.

According to the Council to Promote the Resumption of Whaling in South Korea, whale meat was a popular substitute for beef and pork, particularly among the people who fled to the southern part of the country during the Korean War. Said Council Chairman Byon Chang-myong, “Whale culling is necessary to protect the maritime industry and the dietary culture.”

But not everyone agrees. O Yong-e, the representative of a local environmental group, says,

“The reason the municipal officer (Kim) began talking about whaling was to win votes. There is no scientific backing (for the claim that whaling is) harming the fishing industry.”

Concerned about the possibility of demonstrations led by environmentalists, the ward decided to suspend its petition drive. They are now formulating a petition to the government to establish a special whaling district, primarily to promote tourism.

The official position of the South Korean government, however, is that the country does not support whaling, and the government has given no indication that it will move to amend the law.

Meanwhile, this year’s whale festival was a big success, drawing an estimated 250,000 people.


And I’ll bet they all had a whale of a good time!

Here’s a link to a BBC article from a few years ago explaining that the folks near Ulsan have been eating whales since before the days of Beowulf. You’ll be able to guess what the British think about it before you click on the link, but it’s worth reading anyway. At the end, the author tries to convince the reader that the custom is dying out because a few young people he talked with didn’t like whale and thought it was fogey food.

The plural of anecdote is not data, but there’s no explaining that to a journalist. The rules in their business are different.

And here’s a nice video of the Ulsan whale festival on YouTube. It’s a skoche over eight minutes long. There’s the typical dopey narration by a foreigner in the first minute, but stick with it. (I think he’s inaccurate when he says the Koreans claim they catch whales for scientific reasons. That’s the Japanese approach.)

Festival fans will enjoy it. The music is great—more evidence for my theory that the Koreans are the most naturally funky people in this corner of the world! And the traditional drumming and dance troupe with teenage performers makes it worth watching to the end.

8 Responses to “South Korea: Where there’s a will, there’s a way to eat whale”

  1. Ken said

    More than 270 whales per year are caught by Chance in Korea.

    Whale meat restaurants in Ulsan are closing after illeagally fished 60 whales meat were found.

  2. ampontan said

    Ken: I think they were caught by chance too.

    The fishermen saw their chance to catch a whale, and took it!

  3. Bender said

    They shouldn’t be eating whale caught near shore. I believe they’re pretty much contaminated. They should be concerned about that, if they’re concerned so much about beef.

  4. Ken said


    Korean Lotto is including misfortune too, isn’t it?


    They do not care even the meat of rabies dog.

  5. vejea jennings said

    hey..what are you guys talking about??

    In South Korea, catching whale are illegal..

    and in 2005, 59 whales are caught by chance; not more than 270..(

    moerover, most of korean people don’t like whales and dogs as a food!!

  6. Papertiger said


    I have lived in Korea for six years and there are a great many “bo-shin tang” (dog soup)restaurants in Seoul and many other locations. It is a traditional food that people here look upon as no different than the French consumption of horses or rabbits, or American’s consumption of deer. The issues surrounding the husbandry of said animals should require the same scrutiny as perhaps, the Democratic Labor Party’s (read: insurgent North Koreans)efforts to run a smear campaign on American beef (as well as their current president) based on the claims of mad-cow disease contamination.

    As for whales, I believe the practice that is common in Japan is also prevalent here, whales that are caught “incidentally” are allowed to be consumed or sold to restaurants (thereby creating an increased demand for otherwise unsanctioned fishing). The southern part of the peninsula, near Ulsan…still has a great many places where one can buy whale meat or eat it in restaurants, I’ve also seen at least one place in Seoul that advertises whale meat by the US embassy. Koreans are, for the most part, a progressive lot and while they do not respond well to aggressive outside pressure…I do believe that increased awareness will create change.

    I’d love to hear any current information as I am doing a debate class for my elementary students and there seems to be precious little with recent dates.

  7. Aceface said

    Via from Marmot Hole:

    Frequent commenter Slim sez:

    I’ve tried whale — now with 40% more mercury — back when it was legal, and it is no fucking delicacy. Japan has to force this wartime famine-era “cuisine” on a wider population, beyond those with a vested interest in the poaching-endangered-species-for-profit-in-the-name-of-tradition industry and nationalists who will swallow anything old-school Japan Inc sells them — and pathetic, entombed-in-amber nihonjinronist exiles like Amponton, who perversely revels in embracing the indefensible side of Nippon and really needs to get out of his village a bit more. And, please, M-bone, do not prostitute your considerable scholastic skills in service of this losing cause — you MUST know better.


    The dude seems to post this on the wrong website in the wrong country,eh?
    Nah, just lacks guts. Runs to his little safe haven because he knows he’d get his lunch handed to him here, and he’s too much of a wuss to say that to my cyber-face. What do you expect from Comment section jockeys? Sophistication? Historical awareness? (Japanese have been eating whale for millenia, not since the war, the Japanese don’t catch endangered species.)

    After all, he’s a guy who’d rather read 5,000 posts about English teachers getting busted for pot than something serious.

    Maybe he should’ve eaten whale prepared in Japan instead of Korea. They can’t make makizushi either.

    Besides, what’s to defend about whales? Let people eat what they want. Including dogs.

    – A

  8. Aceface said

    Yeah,Nothing to add what you say,but I just wanted to remind you to take this part to your collection of “What readers write”section.Especially this part.

    “pathetic, entombed-in-amber nihonjinronist exiles like Amponton, who perversely revels in embracing the indefensible side of Nippon and really needs to get out of his village a bit more”

    A classical commentary from expat-who-lives-on-the-other-side-of-the-body-of-water-that-shall-not-be-named. Somehow I have a feeling Slim never actually tried any Nihonjinron books before,though.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: