When Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto visited Norway earlier this summer, the main topic was oil. But he also found time to stroll through an open air fish market, where his eyes lit upon a large mound of dark, purplish meat priced at $8 per pound.
The previously stiff Japanese leader seemed to relax suddenly, and he smiled at his Norwegian hosts. A cultural divide had been bridged. Mr. Hashimoto was among fellow whale eaters.
While Japan hunts whales for the stated purpose of research, Norway openly flouts the International Whaling Commission' s (IWC) ban on commercial whaling. It has done so since1993, battening the hatches against world protest while gradually increasing its annual, self-imposed quota of minke whales, which weigh up to 11 tons each.
"They are an excellent meat resource, like cows in a field, and no more intelligent," insists Steinar Bastesen, who has harpooned some 1,500 minke whales since he was a boy and is now running for parliament with the slogan, "Save the whales for dinner."
Mr. Bastesen personifies the pugnacious style with which Norway defends its right to hunt minke whales. When antiwhaling demonstrators chained themselves to Mr. Bastesen's boat to keep it from leaving port, his crew cut most of them free with blow torches.
IWC scientists say the minke whale stock consists of about 900,000 worldwide, including some 118,000 in Norwegian waters, enough for a limited hunt.
But for political and philosophical reasons, the commission's voting members have refused to exempt the minke from the 1986 moratorium protecting endangered whale species such as the blue, fin, and humpback.
During the three-month whaling season that ended July 31, Norwegians grilled, pan-fried, and stewed the meat from 503 minke whales, about 100 more than last year.
The national whaling commissioner said his office may raise the catch quota again next year as Norwegian consumers regain a taste for whale that dates back to Viking times but faded during the seven years Norway honored the ban.
"In my family, it is the only meat we eat," says Per Gunnar Olsen, a fish packer in the Lofoten Islands, just north of the Arctic Circle. "It is tender and delicious. We never touch beef."
In the more urbanized south, the chief market for whale is the young and curious.
"Old folks remember it as something they had to eat during the war as a substitute for beef," says a grocer outside Oslo.
Norway's taste for whale perplexes some Westerners, who look at the country's otherwise solid "green" credentials and a devotion to international cooperation. But behind Norway' s defiant stance on whales is the unique strain of nationalism that also keeps its 4.3 million people from joining the European Union.
"They live in a relatively harsh and bleak environment and don't like being told by the soft southerners of Europe and America how to live their lives," explains Ray Gambell, the British executive director of the IWC.
Norwegian whalers claim they are due the same courtesy as aboriginal peoples in Alaska and elsewhere, whom the IWC allows to hunt whales for subsistence.
This assertion is scoffed at by environmentalists who note that Norway's offshore oil fields have made it one of the world's richest countries.
Indeed, whaling today is hardly noticeable in the national ledger. Only 32 boats took part in the minke whale hunt this year, their crews selling meat ashore for $3.2 million. By weight, this meat equaled only 6 percent of Norway' s yearly consumption of moose.
The Norwegian government nonetheless spends a disproportionate amount of time and money defending the whale hunt in international forums, monitoring it at sea, training the whalers, surveying whale stocks, and developing improved equipment, such as grenade-tipped harpoons. It does so because much of the Norwegian press and public seem to believe the national identity is at stake.
"When you criticize the food people eat, that's an attack on culture," says University of Oslo anthropologist Arne Kalland. "Whaling has symbolic importance to Norwegians.The fact that it is economically insignificant makes it the perfect issue to unite behind."