Archives for : nationalism

Taiji drops anchor on dolphin hunts despite increasing pressure

This post was originally created in late 2015, but due to problems with Word Press I was unable to publish it til mid-2016.

Earlier this month I made another trip to Taiji, the town in Wakayama Prefecture that has become notorious worldwide for its dolphin hunts, largely by virtue of the 2009 Oscar-winning documentary “The Cove.” 

Last weekend the Japan Times published a story about that trip, which can be found online here. I am grateful to the JT for giving me ample space for this story, but as always there are details that had to be cut, partly to fit the JT on Sunday format, but also because I was unable to verify the validity of some of them.

I thought I would write down a couple of those omitted points here, but before I do I also wanted to thank the JT readers who took time to comment on the Taiji issue. Almost all of them were not commentary on the story itself, but were from readers who wanted to make their own feelings known about this very controversial issue. Some of the comments provoked some (heated) debate, which is always healthy. But it struck me that one or two of those comments may have benefitted from information that sadly was self-edited from my original draft for the above-mentioned reasons, thus prompting me to write this post.

One of the comments made on the JT online site was: “Why single out dolphins? And why Taiji when several other small communities such as the Faroe Islands practice the same thing?” Another said: “The Faroe Islands should get as much press as Taiji, but because of ulterior and suspect motives Taiji gets all the attention.”

Indeed, Taiji is not the only place that caries out dolphin drives. In fact, even within Japan there are other places that take or have taken a far more significant number of cetaceans in their drives, but do so far out to sea where they are less conspicuous and easy to scrutinize. The hunts in the Faroes date back far longer than those in Taiji, but if former dolphin trainer-turned activist Ric O’Barry is to believed that is all about to end.

According to O’Barry, the Faroes has agreed to end its dolphin culls in exchange for $30,000 per annum. He should know: the person who apparently brokered that deal is his son. But there’s a hitch: “All we need to do is find that money,” says O’Barry.

As mentioned in the JT story, some people in Taiji believe that activist groups (especially Sea Shepherd) are motivated by nothing else but money, and that by emphasizing what they see as the bloody/cruel/barbaric nature of the dolphin drives, they can play the sympathy card far more effectively and attract more funding. “Look at the people who support (the activists)” said one employee at a whale processing company who I interviewed. “There’s Hollywood stars and others with the financial clout to keep these protests going for a long time. The way to their wallets is blood, blood, blood.”

And it’s not just the activists. Simon Wearne, a former Sea Shepherd cinematographer-turned Taiji researcher, says he was surprised during his time filming the TV series “Whale Wars” to learn of the time and resources expended on issues such as whaling and dolphin hunting when the “real issue” – melting ice caps — was being pretty much ignored.

Unrelated to this is a comment that was made by a friend who questioned my lack of a voice from the Taiji government in the JT story. I did interview an official at the town offices (and in a way regret not reinstating this into the story), but the information that was forthcoming from that quarter was sadly lacking in any real substance.

Which was not unexpected, but nonetheless frustrating. I had written up a letter in Japanese explaining my purpose for researching the JT story, and had it vetted and stamped by the editors at the paper, but it made little difference with this official. Ignoring my first question, his first comment related to the use of the phrase iruka-ryo” (“dolphin fishing”) in the letter when there was an “officially recognized” term (“oikomi-ryo”) for the hunts that take place from September each year. I replied that perhaps rather than splitting hairs over semantics it would be more fruitful to look at the wider intention of the letter and therefore the purpose of my proposed research (to try and offer readers of the JT a more balanced perspective that took in the opinions of residents and officials in Taiji). He replied that it was semantics that had caused misunderstandings about Taiji in the first place.

And in one sense, he is not wrong. Semantics, and individual’s interpretations of letters, emails (and as some JT readers will know, comments posted about stories), can lead to misunderstandings, even if they are unintentional and/or not even the key issue at hand.

Yet, the town official and other people I spoke with there are never afraid of using those same semantics when they serve their own purposes. The best known of these is the statement often put forward that the dolphin hunters are doing nothing illegal and that the methods employed are in line with Japan’s fisheries laws. Better still is a sentiment (also voiced by prime minister Shinzo Abe) that Japan has a long tradition of dolphin hunting. This is simply not true.

There is also the view that the method employed to kill the dolphins is short and swift and well within the internationally accepted standards for immediacy to prevent suffering (a claim that was disputed by a group of international researchers in 2013). 

Activists, such as Yukari Sugisaka of Help Animals argue that if all of this is in fact true, then why do the fishermen insist on hiding the culls from view by stretching tens of meters of tarpaulin over so-called “killer Cove”? (One official told me that the purpose of the tarpaulin was to stop the animals from bashing themselves on the cove’s rocks when they writhe around.)

I suspect that the real purpose of this official speak is to deflect attention/avoid answering the difficult/unwanted questions in favour of towing the official line. I am not sure that it is a coincidence that the person who has gained a modicum  of cooperation in Taiji recently is a female film director who recently released what could only roughly be termed a “documentary” titled “Behind the Cove” — a riposte to the 2009 Oscar-winning “The Cove,” in which O’Barry played a lead role. Few who have seen it would deny that “The Cove” has some problematic points, but Keiko Yagi’s supposedly “more balanced” (her words) view in “Behind the Cove” stinks of a sympathetic bias.  

Even when I interviewed her (which I did via Skype from Taiji) those biases were clear. Despite admitting that she had never actually witnessed the culls herself, she was happy to echo the Taiji fishermen’s line that the culling method used in recent years does not cause any suffering to the dolphins and certainly did not induce the massacre-like bloody mess of years gone by. “There is no blood,” she told me, claiming that photographers photoshopped their images to change the colour of the water in “Killer Cove” and that Youtube videos claiming to show the slaughters at Taiji are in fact showing footage from the Faroes (in one case this is/was true).

I received some criticism regarding the JT article for not delving deeper into Yagi’s motivations, which one person I interviewed described as being a sad reflection of the “near nationalistic” feelings that the dolphin issue stirs in some Japanese. However, I felt the comments from Yagi that were included in the story were more than sufficient to establish her stance.

I should add that at the point when I interviewed Yagi I had not seen her film (only a short preview), though it was not for want of trying. Yogi had promised to send me a copy of the film to preview, but delayed delivery until just before story deadline she sent me a terse email rescinding her original promise:



“The other day it was my intention to send you a DVD, but after reviewing a number of related articles previously published by your company (sic) we* have concluded it would be inappropriate to send the DVD.”)

*I have been unable to establish exactly who “we” refers to.

I hope that this additional information will add a degree of clarity. I will update and complete this post shortly.

6000 demonstrators voice disapproval of Japan state secrets bill

By Rob Gilhooly

Over 6,000 people gathered to form a human chain around Japan’s National Diet in Tokyo Wednesday to protest against the controversial state secrets protection bill that is expected to become law this Friday.

Despite the inevitability of the bill being rubber stamped before the 185th extraordinary session of the Diet comes to a close on Dec. 6, opponents continue to voice their concerns that the bill is being unnecessarily rushed through Parliament.

If passed, the bill could  impose hefty penalties on leaks of any information deemed sensitive, opponents say. It will also inhibit media coverage and be used to conceal official wrongdoings, they add.

If ratified the law would give ministries the freedom to declare as classified just about anything they want, said Upper House member Takashi Esaki.

The longer (the bill’s enactment) can be delayed, the bigger public opinion will grow and can be heard,” he said. “If that were allowed to happen, the bill could be repealed. (Prime Minister Shinzo) Abe knows that, which is why he’s pushing the bill through so quickly.”

This has led some leading figures to question Abe’s true intentions, with a group of academics headed by Nobel Prize winners Toshihide Masakawa and Hideki Shirakawa stating that the issue was the “biggest threat to democracy since World War II.”

During Wednesday’s demonstrations, banners accused Abe of “steamrollering,” while chants from spirited demonstrators referred to the prime minister and ruling Liberal Democratic Party secretary general Shigeru Ishiba as “terrorists” and “facists.”

Ishiba has incited vitriolic criticism since writing in his blog last Friday that citizens who demonstrate against the state secrets bill are committing “an act of terrorism”.

Even though the bill enactment is pretty much a done deal, I decided to come out here today to voice my objection, but also to take a look at what a terrorist looks like,” said Hiroshi Satomi. “What I have seen is ordinary people shouting and singing about something they are wholeheartedly against. The real terrorists are inside that building over there,” he added pointing at parliament across the road.

People like Ishiba are not interested in democracy, said another protestor, Toshiko Miwa. “They call their party the Liberal Democratic Party, but there is nothing liberal or democratic about Ishiba or Abe,” she said. “I have started to see posters and so on showing Abe’s face superimposed over those of Nazis. I think that’s absolutely true.”

Another protestor, Naoki Takahashi expressed fear of a bill that by its nature is given excessive leeway when it comes to transparency. “It seems almost unconstitutional that lawmakers should be able to rush through a secrecy bill that does not clearly define what constitutes sensitive state secrets or even what acts would be deemed punishable” under the bill, he said.

The bill also does not bode well for the media industry, said a Tokyo union organiser and journalist Chie Matsumoto during a separate rally held by around 600 Japan newspapers’ union members. “It could mean information is less easy to obtain and even information that is not even sensitive may not be given out by officials due to a fear that it might land them in trouble,” she said.

Upper House member Esaki said the bill is a flashback to a pre-war, Imperial times and undemocratic laws that gave authorities the right to arrest anyone who voiced disapproval of the government.

We are now a step closer to Abe’s ultimate plan, which is constitutional amendment and in particular an amendment to article 9 (which outlaws war as a means of settling international disputes involving the state),” the Democratic Party of Japan lawmaker said. “He is targeting the right of self defence … this is part of Abe’s life work, something that he started in his first stint as Prime Minister.

He is a politician who wants to return to the way things were before the war — a stronger nation, a nation that worships the emperor, a nation that above civilian rights to know demands a unified, national commitment. In other words, a country that is some distance away from being either liberal or democratic.”



Japan agrees to buy Senkaku islands

Reports this morning  including this one in the Yomiuri Shinbun about the Japanese government reaching a deal to buy Senkaku islands from the current owner, who lives in Saitama.

The agreement between the Saitama man and the government is reportedly worth 2.05 billion yen and will include three of the chain’s five main islands — Uotsuri-jima, Kitako-jima and Minamiko-jima islands.

The islands fall under the administration of Okinawa, but are part of an  ongoing territorial dispute with China.

In a desperate attempt to protect the islands, Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara and Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda had entered  a heated battle to buy the Senkaku Islands, which are located in the East China Sea between Okinawa and Taiwan, from the current landowner, who runs a real estate business and is now in his 70s.

The efforts to secure ownership of the islands has been stepped up in recent weeks following the landing on the island in August by a group of Pro-China activists from Hong Kong. The 14 activists were detained and later released, though not before a spate of anti-Japanese street protests broke out in China with regards to the islands, which are also claimed by Taiwan.

A group of Japanese nationalists has subsequently made an illegal landing on the island chain.

Tokyo Gov. Ishihara has met the landowner on a number of occasions over the past 9 months and has openly expressed his confidence that the islands will be sold to the metropolitan government, even though the landowner has turned down an application by Tokyo to land on the islands in late August.

The metro government has since conducted aerial surveys of the islands, a move that was criticized by China.

With reference to Ishihara’s attempts to buy the islands, the state-run Xinhua news agency said: “The Japanese government should not let a right-winger take hold of the reins.”


Making contact

A sign indicating the end of a tsunami  inundation area lies among the debris after the mega-tsunami in Minami-Sanriku. Robert Gilhooly photo

A sign indicating the end of a tsunami inundation area lies among the debris left behind by the mega-tsunami in Minami-Sanriku, Miyagi Prefecture. Robert Gilhooly photo

I have just managed to get through to an old friend in Koriyama (Paul Vonnahme for those of you who might know him) in Fukushima Pref. Have tried numerous times over passed 5  days, but never managed to get through. He and his family are fine, which is a relief. But here’s the strange thing. Where he lives is about 60-70 km from the nuclear plant in Iwaki, but he tells me that the local authorities are about to re-open schools, that the water is back on and he just took a hot shower! This despite the fact that the ground in the area still feels like its “floating on water” and he lives within the U.S. exclusion zone. He says they have been feeling about 3 fairly significant quakes per hour but that the ground is constantly moving.

Another friend contacted me this morning to tell me that a report in the US Senate states that Japan doesn’t know what it’s doing with regards to the nuclear plant. Meanwhile, the exclusion zone has been widened to 50 km. I just heard on the news a Japanese lady who lives 51 km outside the zone has decided to up and leave, heading further north. There are many reports of tens of thousands of people in Fukushima doing the same and that hotels and other facilities in northern prefectures of Akita and Aomori are preparing to receive them.

I have managed to put up some more photos at this site.

Disputed Islands: Dokdo/Takeshima

Takeshima/Doko: Islands disputed by Japan and South Korea

Takeshima/Doko: Islands disputed by Japan and Korea. ©Robert Gilhooly Photo

The link to the article published in the Japan Times no longer works and it seems the paper has taken the story offline, probably bowing to pressure from the Korean government no doubt. So I have pasted the story about Dokdoas it appeared in the Japan Times below.

Link here to recently published story about disputed islands in the East Sea, I mean, the Sea of Japan. Brilliant trip to one of the world’s most isolated islands with a current occupancy of 2 people. You can see more photos from this trip here


By Rob Gilhooly

Seong-do Kim is trying to look relaxed, but failing. Straight backed, arms pulled tight to his sides, he chatters away in a dialect that earlier even the Korean translator had struggled to comprehend.

One thing that’s clear is Kim has toothache: Our common language – that globally prized fall-back called ballpark signing – involves a finger pointing into open mouth followed by a scrunched up face, the deep lines in this 70-year-old man’s weather-beaten features providing all the auxiliary punctuation required.

Another message he successfully conveys consists of that same grimace prefaced by a forefinger pointing seaward and a hand over his heart. “I miss home,” this presumably means.

“I feel so comfortable there,” he says later through the translator. When he does make rare trips to the mainland, to see his three children or, as is the case this time, to visit a dentist, he feels uneasy among the crowds. “I can’t wait to go back.”

Home for Kim is on one of a group of tiny islands that are invisible from where we stand some 215 km away on a trench-riddled beach on South Korea’s east coast. Barely larger than Tokyo’s Hibiya Park, those islands are, however, a politically charged symbol for South Koreans and Japanese alike, triggering confrontations, demonstrations, diplomatic spats and mutterings of international tribunals.

Kim and his wife Shin-yeol have lived there for 40 years, the only permanent residents on what they and all South Koreans call Dokdo, two craggy, treeless islands and 33 surrounding rocks and reefs that Japanese know as Takeshima and anyone not wishing to earn the wrath of either refers to as the Liancourt Rocks.

Only one of those names could be heard aboard the ferry from Pohang port on the southeast coast of the Korean peninsula during a five-hour trip that is currently one of only two boats serving the islands.

As we approached the Liancourts, a cloud of seagulls hovering hopefully above the ROK flag that fluttered fanatically at the aft, 240 Koreans spilled onto the decks armed with cameras and mobile phones, the backdrop to their viewfinders two fortress-like rocks rising abruptly out of the ocean as they have done for the best part of 3 million years.

There’s not a Japanese visitor in sight. Local authorities report that around 500,000 people have visited the islands since the ferry services started in 2005, but Japanese nationals account for less than 5 percent of that total.

“Actually, I wish more Japanese would come,” said Hee-sung Pak, a Seoul-based IT engineer. “I want them to see how Korean Dokdo really is, that it is ours so let’s not fight about it.”

The boat trip involves a refuel stopover at Ulluengdo, a bigger, more hospitable island about 90 km west of the Liancourts. Killing time around the colorful dockside fish market, I notice an elderly man in baseball cap, baggy jeans and a white T-shirt on which is printed in English and Japanese “Dokdo is Korean Territory.”

“I give these to any Japanese visitors that come this way,” says Sung kyu-lim, who runs a souvenir shop on the island. “I don’t want to agitate, just educate. You can see Dokdo from here when the weather is clear. It’s our back yard.”

Located virtually equidistant from the mainlands of each country, exactly whose back yard the  islands belong to has served as a sticking point in relations between the northeast Asian neighbors for over 60 years.

Researchers and scholars invariably turn to maps and historical tomes to back up their territorial claims, although counter claims and historical ambiguity invariably cloud the issue further.

Take, for instance, the Paldochongdo (Map of Korea) penned in 1531, which indicates the Liancourts as ROK territory. Yet, according to the map they lie due west of  Ulleungdo and as a single island of roughly equal size, when in fact they are located 90 km to the east and, even collectively, are significantly smaller.

Then there’s the Dainihon Zenzu (Complete Map of Japan) produced in 1877 by Japan’s Military Affairs Bureau, which makes no mention of the Liancourts, or the official Shimane Prefectural map dated 1929 that also omits the islands, even though Japan officially incorporated them into Shimane in 1905.

“Even officially published documents didn’t include the islands, which is proof Japan didn’t regard them as belonging to them whatsoever,” says Shin Yeon-sung, secretary general of the Northeast Asian History Foundation, a research center in Seoul partly funded by the ROK government.

A Japan foreign ministry communique on the issue, titled “10 Issues of Takeshima,” doesn’t mention the two maps, but attempts to counter ROK’s assertion that Japan made no claims to the islands prior to 1905, when Japan incorporated them on the still contested grounds that they had been terra nullius under international law.

Records show, it states, that Japan “established sovereignty over the islands in the mid-17th century at the very latest” and Japanese fishing vessels made Shogunate-sanctioned visits to the islands before and after 1653, the year Japan declared its “sakoku” policy barring foreign entry and Japanese departure from the country.

South Korea counters that historical documents place the islands as part of the Silla Dynasty in AD511, and, that notwithstanding, were among the colonized territories that according to the San Francisco Peace Treaty, which Japan signed in 1951, were supposed to be repatriated after World War II.

In fact they were, albeit temporarily. The earliest drafts of the treaty confirmed Korea’s sovereignty of the isles, but by the 6th  draft they were Japan’s until being returned to Korea again in the 7th.  Later drafts omitted mention of the Liancourt Rocks altogether, thereby sowing the seeds of discord between the northeast Asian neighbors.

Despite subsequent U.S. memos indicating the islands should be considered Japanese territory, Seoul took control of them in 1954, and has stationed security personel there since, a fait accompli that Japan has challenged and countered with overtures of peaceful resolution through the international courts in The Hague.

South Korea, however, has refused to comply, simply because, as Seoul National University professor Min Gyo Koo explains, as far as the ROK government is concerned, there is no legal issue to resolve.

“The official view is South Korea cannot negotiate because it has no territorial dispute with Japan, which is exactly how Japan treats China with regards to the Senkaku Islands dispute,” says Koo, a specialist in northeast Asia disputes and regionalism “South Koreans and other nations that experienced colonialism for decades, even centuries are still obsessed with national sovereignty. We still have this sense of victimization.”

According to Japanese foreign ministry spokesman Hidenobu Sobashima, Japan’s position “remains unchanged” with regards to what is referred to in the ministry’s official statement as South Korea’s “illegal occupation of Takeshima” and its claim that the islands are “an inherent territory of Japan in light of historical facts and based on international law.”

This apparent Catch 22 situation makes any bilateral solution unlikely, says Koo, meaning a minilateral framework, such as the Six Party Talks, is required “to collectively but incrementally deal” with disputes in the region.

“Otherwise, we must hope there are no diplomatic spats between the two countries in the next 10 years. Maybe then we can talk about the next step,” he adds.

It seems a small asking price, yet tempers have tended to flare more regularly. In 2005, Shimane Prefecture ignored foreign ministry recommendations and declared Feb. 22 “Takeshima Day,” causing demonstrations in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul during which two Korean nationals sliced off their fingers in protest.

Six years on and Democratic Party of Japan lawmaker Shu Watanabe last month vowed to attend next week’s celebrations in Shimane, a move that some believe will trigger the kind of diplomatic spat that followed Japan’s inclusion of the islands in an educational publication in 2008.

Yet, it is Korea that has been more effective in raising positive awareness of the issue, instigating a plethora of pro-Dokdo, anti-Takeshima websites and infiltrating public conscience through “Dokdo is Korean Territory” posters, drinks and video games, says Masao Shimojo of Takushoku University, whose published works include “Is Takeshima Japan’s or Korea’s?”

“In Japan, unlike Korea, territorial issues are local government concerns, not national ones and there is no unified voice communicating the ROK’s erroneous historical arguments,” says Shimojo, adding that Takeshima Day was inaugurated partly because Shimane felt the national government was not doing enough to raise awareness of the issue here.

“Korea has been skillful in lobbying support, both domestically and internationally, but self-seeking politicians in Japan whose only concern is winning the next election are largely responsible for Koreans spouting off  ‘Takeshima is Korean territory’ slogans. I doubt they know the historical facts either.”

This keener awareness of the issue among Koreans is a key reason why Japan should abandon its territorial claims, says Jeff Kingston, a professor of Asian studies at Temple University in Tokyo.

“The only scenario for a peaceful solution is for Japan to renounce all claims. To do so would improve bilateral relations historically. Not doing so would simply prove Japan is deaf to its colonial legacy. Korea is never going to budge on this issue. It means too much to them.”

Back aboard the ferry to the islands, this sentiment is plain to see. As the captain announces the news everyone dreaded, that the waters are too choppy to risk going ashore, groans of disappointment are tempered by another announcement that we will do a circle of the islands. Visible just 60 meters away on the east island, Dongdo, is the concrete wharf, a lighthouse, manned by ROK maritime officials, and helicopter pad while clinging to the coastal extreme of the west island, Seodo, is he home of Mr. and Mrs Kim, the islands’ only residents.

Or so I thought. According to passenger Pak more than 2,000 Koreans have moved their permanent addresses here through the National Dokdo Permanent Registration Movement and as of last April all day trippers are eligible for honorary citizenship. “We like our Dokdo,” he says with a smile. “And we plan to keep it.”



Japan War-end Anniversary!

Woman prays by a tree at the National Cemetery in Tokyo

Woman prays by a tree at the National Cemetery in Tokyo

Shinichi Kamajo, founder of ultra-right wing group Gishin Gokoku-kai

Shinichi Kamajo, founder of ultra-right wing group Gishin Gokoku-kai

Aug. 15, the day that marked Japan’s surrender in the Pacific War, is also a day when Japanese make the pilgrimage to Yasukuni Shrine, often referred to as “Japan’s Soul” and the place where convicted war criminals are interred. As a result, it is a magnet for nationalists and right-wingers. You can find more images that I took during a day which took me from the shrine, to the national cemetery and then on to another cemetery that houses the grave of Japan’s war-time leader Hideki Tojo here.
Also here a photo story on Japanese nationalism that ran in Global Post recently. Comments welcome!

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