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