Archives for : japan

Abuse against women in Japan

The Japan Times recently published a story of mine about domestic violence in Japan. You can find an online version of the story here.

The main reason for writing this piece was the inauguration (more like a second coming really) of the Japan chapter of the international movement “White Ribbon Campaign,” which started in Canada in 1991. The following is from the WRCC’s website.

“White Ribbon is the world’s largest movement of men and boys working to end violence against women and girls, promote gender equity, healthy relationships and a new vision of masculinity.

Starting in 1991, we asked men to wear white ribbons as a pledge to never commit, condone or remain silent about violence against women and girls. Since then the White Ribbon has spread to over 60 countries around the world.”

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:

yagi

 

“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.

Japan Bans Aquariums from Buying Dolphins caught in Taiji Hunts

 

By Rob Gilhooly

In an unexpected move, the Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums (JAZA) has confirmed it will stop its members from buying dolphins caught by drive fisheries in Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture.

A pod of what appear to be pilot whale dolphins swim in a sealed off area known as "killer cove" just after the first dolphin cull of the season has taken place in Taiji,  a small fishing village in central western Japan on 10 September  2009. Floating upside-down at top right of the picture, where the rocky cliff meets the water and the yellow inflatable floats, is the discarded body of a baby bottle nose dolphin..Photographer: Robert Gilhooly

A pod of what appear to be pilot whale dolphins swim in a sealed off area known as “killer cove” just after the first dolphin cull of the season has taken place in Taiji, a small fishing village in central western Japan on 10 September 2009. Floating upside-down at top right of the picture, where the rocky cliff meets the water and the yellow inflatable floats, is the discarded body of a baby bottle nose dolphin..Photographer: Robert Gilhooly

JAZA was facing possible expulsion from the the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) after being suspended by the global body for allowing its members to take dolphins caught in Taiji, whose drive fisheries are renowned for what activists believe are inhumane hunting methods.

In an announcement May 20, JAZA said that during an emergency meeting all but three of its 152 members had voted on the issue of whether to stay in WAZA. Of those, 99 voted in favor of the motion, while 43 voted against it.

The statement added that the JAZA board had made the decision to “prohibit members from acquiring dolphins caught in the wild by drive fishing in Taiji” in order to ensure its WAZA membership remained intact. It also announced the banning the export and sale of dolphins caught in the hunts.

However, JAZA chairman Kazutoshi Arai was adamant that this announcement was far from being a condemnation of the Taiji drive fisheries. “The drive fisheries in Taiji are certainly not the brutal affairs indicated by WAZA,” he said in press conference. Right wing daily Sankei Shimbun referred to the drives as a “Japanese tradition.”

The decision was made in light of a WAZA announcement on April 23 that it had suspended JAZA from its membership roster after the two organizations had been unable to reach an agreement on issues involving JAZA member zoos and aquariums taking dolphins from the annual drives in Taiji, a coastal town in Wakayama Prefecture.

Also known as “killer cove,” the town was brought to international attention in 2009 following the release of The Cove, a documentary about the dolphin culls that went on to win an Oscar for best documentary in 2010.

According to WAZA executive director Gerald Dick shortly before the JAZA announcement, the Gland, Switzerland-based world body had made numerous attempts to stop Japanese aquariums from taking cetaceans from the Taiji drives, which are undertaken for several months each fall and frequently garner international criticism.

WAZA officials made an appeal in Tokyo as recently as last summer and again in November during WAZA’s annual international conference in New Delhi.

WAZA asserted that taking from the drives went against the organization’s codes regarding animal welfare.

According to a WAZA official Hyatt Antognini Amin, WAZA bylaws state that in the case of a suspension “the affected member may provide further information on the issues raised to the President within 30 days.”

After that, “the council must decide to lift the suspension or to expel the member concerned prior to the next administrative session,” she said. “This is when the final decision will be made to either expel them, in which case they will be removed from our website.”

Dick denied that WAZA had given Japan an ultimatum whereby it would have to cease purchasing dolphins caught in Taiji by May 21 or face expulsion. “There is a grace period which is between 30 days (after the suspension) and the next (WAZA) council meeting, which is in October,” he said.

Following the suspension in April, JAZA’s Kensho Nagai said the organization had explained its “circumstances” in some detail, but that WAZA had not been able to fully comprehend them. The method employed in Japan to catch dolphins is recognized by the Japanese government, he said. What’s more, the method used to catch dolphins that are used in Japan’s aquariums and zoos is very different than the one used to catch dolphins that are used for food, he added. “Despite this, the two methods are seen as being one and the same thing.”

Dolphins fished for aquariums “are handled with extreme care” and “are exposed to zero stress” by the Taiji fishermen, Nagai said.

Asked if WAZA had perhaps misunderstood JAZA’s explanation, Dick said: “We can only make a decision based on the info that’s given,” he said.

This is an issue that has garnered attention around the world and we have been looking into the Taiji drive fisheries for 10 years, and concluded it was a violation of our codes regarding the welfare of animals.”

Dick was also critical of certain activist organizations – including one in Australia that is currently filing a lawsuit against Taiji – for spreading “false and misleading” information about the drives to gain attention in the media.

Our focus is rather than going that route to focus on cooperation and building cooperation between all interested parties, he said. “It is much more constructive to do this because in the end we all have the same goal.”

Renewable village offers lifeline to Fukushima farmers

I had a story published in New Scientist (in the magazine print edition in late December and in the online edition on Jan. 6) about a community-run project that promotes renewable energy generation and the reuse of farmland in Fukushima. Below is a slightly longer version of the story, which I think demonstrates once more how some local residents are showing initiative in the face of adversity.

 

By Rob Gilhooly

Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture.

It seems like the last place to find a Utopian blueprint. Yet, on an idyllic patch of Fukushima land blighted by nuclear fallout 33 months ago stands the foundations of a model village of the future.

Kenro Okumura stands by the PV panels that form part of the Renewable Energy Village in Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture. ©Rob Gilhooly Photo. All rights reserved

The farmland in this coastal city is currently home to 120 photovoltaic panels bolted atop a 3-meter-high frame. Upon completion, however, the “Renewable Energy Village” will also feature a wind farm, farmland for radioresistant crops, educational and recreational facilities and an astronomical observatory.

One crop that has already been planted, namely rapeseed, was chosen, say project organisers, because its oil is free of contaminants even though the plants themselves take in some radioisotopes such as those of caesium.

The community-run project was launched in an attempt to protect the area’s farming industry, which was devastated by the triple meltdowns at Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant in March 2011.

People evacuated from areas closer to the plant have given up ever farming their fields again,” said project leader Ryozo Hakozaki. “There might be an amusement park feel to the project, but we’re trying to show them what the future could hold.”

Around 65 percent of Minamisoma’s 8,500 hectares of farmland lies within the nuclear evacuation zone, a 1,256 sq. km area – around half of which is land – that includes parts of Minamisoma. The remainder was flooded by tsunami waves and showered with radionuclides, but in December permission was granted to plant rice there, despite tests revealing cesium levels exceeding the official 100 becquerels per kg limit.

Some farmers see the move as facile, says local assemblyman Kenro Okumura, a local assemblyman and farmer who donated farmland for the project. “It’s three years since the accident, but still there’s no guarantee that crops can be sold,” he said. “At worst our plan protects farmland.”

Central to the project is “solar sharing”– erecting solar panels above farmland and growing crops underneath. Complementing the idea is a government initiative encouraging enterprises to sell solar energy to utilities companies.

That initiative, which was introduced in July 2012, centers around generous feed-in tariffs, which are among the highest in the world. As a result, they have triggered the development large-scale solar parks – though none uses solar sharing. Most have solar panels resting on the ground itself, which makes growing crops impossible. One will be the country’s largest solar park, also in Minamisoma.

Largely thanks to these, shipments of solar more than tripled in the second quarter of 2013, according the Japan Photovoltaic Energy Association.

Hakozaki says such large-scale ventures have a major drawback in that they threaten Minamisoma’s farming industry. “If farmers decide to sell up their land to megasolar parks … entire communities will be wiped off the map.”

The Renewable Energy Village model offers a way around this issue, said project chairman Sohei Takahashi, whose radionuclide decontamination research organization is also developing new, radioresistant produce.

Through the project we can protect farmland and communities and with two parallel revenues create increased prosperity compared with before the disasters.”

 

Thin fault zone, slippery clay behind gravity distorting quake

Had a story published in New Scientist about research at the quake subduction zone revealing weak geological factors at the fault zone being behind the massive quake that hit Japan’s northeast in 2011. It sounds as though this is one of those “duh” moments, but methods used to come to this conclusion are truly groundbreaking, involving deep-sea drilling more than

Photo shows the Chikyu (Earth) deep sea research vessel docked at Shimizu port in Shimizu, Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan on 11 Sept. 2013. Photographer: Rob Gilhooly. All rights reserved.

800 meters below the seabed at the subduction site, which itself is over 7 km below the water.

The research was conducted aboard the Chikyu deep-sea research vessel (pictured right), which I recently boarded when it docked a couple of months ago — a fascinating experience in itself and one I shall be writing about.

 

Using the data collected from the site during research that began in early 2012, three papers were published in the peer-reviewed Science journal by a team of international scientists.

The first is about the geology of the fault zone and the main result found there is that the fault zone is only about 5 meters or less thick. “That’s fairly unusual and different from what we have observed in other subduction zones. Usually in the 10s of meters or more,” researcher James Mori told me.

The second paper is about measuring the friction of the fault using the core sample of the fault zone material and putting it in a machine that simulates an earthquake and measures the friction. The main result from that paper is the friction is very low due to a huge presence of called smectite — a a slippery clay that is often found to be at the centre of large landslides in Europe. “That means the fault slips very easily during the big earthquake,” Mori added. “Essentially this is the first time such material has been taken from a big subduction zone earthquake so it’s really a brand new result.”

The third paper relates to temperature measurement taken using devices that were placed in the boreholes earlier this year. This too was designed to measure friction. Essentially the same results were found as from other core sample experiment, meaning researchers had two very different ways of estimating the friction. Both  gave about the same level of what is called the “coefficient of friction”. In this case the COF was about 0.1, which is very low — most rocks slip at a COF of about 0.5 or 0.6.

“So one of the ways of applying this is to say that subduction zones that have especially thin fault zones with a lot of smectite potentially can produce these very large slips of 50 meters and potentially could produce very large tsunamis,” said Mori. “That’s not to say that … if there is no smectite there is not going to be big tsunamis — that’s not a good conclusion.”

A separate report utilised data taken from the European Space Agency’s GOCE satellite that showed the March 2011 quake had been “felt” in space and distorted gravity over time.

Japan to start new nuclear regulations

DR. Shunchi Tanaka, chairman of Japan's Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NRA), speaks during a press conference at the Foreign Press Center in Tokyo, Japan on 04 July, 2013. Tanaka said that while operators of Japan's 48 reactors would be eligible to recommence operations should they meet the NRA's new guidelines, they would ultimately need to gain the cooperation of local governments and people of the communities in which those reactors are located. Photographer: Rob Gilhooly

 

Japan’s Nuclear Regulatory Authority has given the go ahead for the nation’s two reactors currently online to remain in service without further inspections following the announcement of NRA’s new safety standards, which will come into force July 7.

NRA chairman Shunichi Tanaka said during a news conference July 4 that Japan’s 48 other reactors, offline since the 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima, would need to comply to “strict and stringent” new regulations before they could be considered for re-start approval.
The NRA has even wider-reaching power than previous watch-dog bodies to ensure the regulations are met, Tanaka said Friday. A new “back-fit” system will be implemented to ensure that any aspects of plant inspections previously left at the discretion of operators will now be independently monitored. The upgrade would turn a previously B-ranked regulatory system into “one that at last comes into line with international standards,” the nuclear watchdog’s chair added.
Meanwhile, Tokyo Electric Power Co., the troubled utilities operator of Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, has said it will ask the government to allow it to restart two of its reactors at another facility in Niigata as they meet the new NRA safety guidelines.
Niigata Gov. Hirohiko Izumida has expressed dismay at Tepco’s request to restart two of the seven reactors at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant, which was completely shutdown following an earthquake in 2007.
NRA chairman Tanaka said even should utilities companies satisfy the new regulations they would need to win over local people. “The resumption of reactors will come only after operators and political leaders gain the understanding and cooperation of host communities,” he said.
He also believed that due to the severity of the new regulations a new safety awareness culture would grow, superseding the tendency previously seen within utilities companies to undertake the legally allowed bare minimum measures.
Tanaka also commented on the Fukushima power plant saying he did not feel a sarcophagus of the type used to enshroud Chernobyl’s reactor 4 was appropriate for the three damaged Fukushima reactors, which went into meltdown after massive earthquakes and tsunami hit the plant in March 2011.
At Fukushima Daiichi heat would continue to be emitted for tens or possibly hundreds of years, meaning countermeasures will still need to be taken. Rather than enshrouding the leaking reactors it was better to continue efforts to decommission the plants, he said.

First snowfall in 2013 for Tokyo

A woman walks through the snow in Tokyo on 14 Jan 2013. Rob Gilhooly photo. All rights reserved.

 

Jan 14 saw the first snow fall of the winter in Tokyo and it was pretty treacherous. From my apartment I got a view of people passing along the street blow and dozens of vehicles struggling to climb the icy road that runs past on the other side. Cars were basically stopping at lights and then sliding back down the hill – a couple of minor accidents resulting. The meteorological agency estimates more than 40 cm will have fallen around Tokyo by 6 pm today. I’m staying in!

Earthquake on Dec. 7 2012

Injuries were reported in Japan Friday after a magnitude 7.3 earthquake jolted the northeastern region that was devastated by  last years quake and tsunami.

The meteorological agency immediately issued a tsunami warning in the area around Ishinomaki, one of the cities that was flattened by 20 meter waves during the March 2011 disasters.

Tsunami warnings were sounded throughout the area urging people to flea to safety on higher ground. Several cities in Miyagi, including the region’s capital, Sendai, urged residents in coastal areas to evacuate. Sendai Airport was immediately shut down, and flights headed for the airport from domestic destinations were ordered not to land. The tsunami eventually reached Ayukawa at 18:02.

The Nuclear Regulation Authority said no abnormalities had been detected at nuclear plants in the area, including Tepco’s Fukushima Daiichi plant, site of the world’s worst ever nuclear disaster last year, and Tohoku Electric Power Co’s Onagawa plant.

Japan’s Meteorological Agency reported that a tsunami measuring 1 meter in height had hit the Ayukawa area on Ishinomaki’s Ojika Peninsula. Further tsunami were anticipated, a spokesman said.

Television images showed violent shaking in Miyagi, Fukushima and Ibaraki prefectures. In Tokyo the shaking continued for more than a minute. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda cancelled appointments and immediately returned to his offices, telling reporters he intended to “thoroughly” respond to the quake.

The M7.3 quake hit at at 17:22 local time some 237 km off the Pacific coast of the Ojika Peninsula at a depth of 10 km. The biggest tremors, estimated at around 5 in the Japanese scale of 7, could be felt as far away as Hachinohe in Aomori and Hitachi in Ibaraki.

Some high-speed bullet train services were suspended while minor injuries were reported in Ibaraki and Miyagi.

Japan is estimated to experience 10 percent of the world’s earthquakes and has been stricken by 2 major quakes in the past 17 years, killing a total of 25,000 people.

Eco-Ride

A prototype of the Eco-Ride, an energy-saving urban transportation system developed by the University of Tokyo and Senyo Kogyo Co., is demonstrated at the university's testing facility in Chiba, Japan. Photographer: Robert Gilhooly

I tried out the Eco-Ride “train” recently — a transportation system being developed by the university of Tokyo and an amusement ride developer. It’s basically a roller-coaster — there’s no engine or motor to propel it along the elevated tracks, which are designed to utilize and control the vehicle’s potential energy to maintain comfortable speed levels. I have uploaded a video on YouTube here

There’s talk of it being available commercially as early as 2014, and municipalities in the Tohoku region affected by last year’s tsunami are showing an interest in using it for shuttling residents from newly created residential areas on high ground down to their workplaces on the coastal plains.

I wrote a story about this for the New Scientist, an abridged version of which is available of the magazine’s website here

 

Kamakura Reitaisai Festival

 

I recently covered the 3-day Retaisai grand festival in Kamakura, which climaxes with the impressive “yabusame” mounted archery ritual. I have covered this before, but without such good access, including permission to shoot rituals inside the inner sanctuary of the main hall at Tsurugaoka Hachimangu shrine and watching the archers prepare themselves and their mounts for the yabusame ritual. Enjoyable but tiring 3 days in intense heat. Only downside was the main procession, which was curtailed due to rain! I have included a selection of the photos from the 3 days with a couple of older shots thrown in.

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