The Associated Press has a nifty exclusive: an interview with the mayor of the Japanese town of Taiji. If that name rings a bell, it’s probably because you’ve seen The Cove, the Oscar-winning documentary that details the dolphin slaughter carried out by the residents of the village. Though The Cove makes it seem as if the dolphin hunt is carried out in secret, as the AP piece shows, the practice is actually fairly well-known in Taiji, where you can buy cans of dolphin meat on store shelves, and where the marine mammals have been eaten for centuries. And according to Mayor Kazutaka Sangen, that’s not likely to change just because of a Western movie:
“We will pass down the history of our ancestors to the next generation, preserve it. We have a strong sense of pride about this,” Mayor Kazutaka Sangen told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview. “So we are not going to change our plans for the town based on the criticism of foreigners.”
This is a message you hear often in Japan, one that was repeated to me during my year working in Tokyo: whaling (and dolphin-hunting) is a part of Japanese tradition, and no amount of foreign pressure is going to change that. In reality that’s generally not the case—Japan didn’t become an industrial whaling nation, hunting the animals for meat on a mass scale, until after World War II. (Blame Gen. Douglas MacArthur—the head of the postwar occupation of Japan suggested that whales could provide cheap protein for a nation that was literally starving at the time.) But Taiji actually does have a long history of hunting both whales and dolphins—like many coastal villages in Japan—one that dates back centuries. In a sense, what’s done in Taiji is not that different from the “indigenous whaling” allowed to native peoples under the International Whaling Commission—including Alaskan natives in the U.S., who legally kill bowhead whales every year.
Of course, any number of practices that are once accepted are now found abhorrent—why isn’t dolphin hunting, at least in parts of Japan, regarded the same way? Which is to say: in a world where we eat millions of chickens, cows and pigs, where we seem intent on plucking every salmon, cod, oyster and shrimp out of the ocean, is there something morally wrong about hunting a marine mammal like a dolphin?
Certainly Ric O’Barry, a dolphin trainer turned activist who has a major role in The Cove, thinks so:
There is no other animal, on sea or land, like the dolphin. We have spent decades and millions of dollars trying to communicate with them, but they are always trying to communicate directly with us. They are the only wild animal I know who have saved human lives — not a few times, but repeatedly through history. They are superbly adapted to the ocean, and make even the best human swimmer look clumsy.
O’Barry is right—there is something different about dolphins (and whales). While aboard the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise in the Dry Tortugas last week, I had a chance to watch a pair of wild dolphins frolic in the lights cast by the stern of the vessel. I could see them churn through the warm Gulf water with the speed of a torpedo, before turning and diving, only to break the surface for air with a sound much like a human swimmer. They were as beautiful as any wild creature I’ve ever seen before. (Of course, they were also out hunting, and feasted on fish attracted by our lights—nature is ruthless.) Though the dolphins hunted in Taiji aren’t endangered, killing them seems like a moral affront—and an unhealthy one at that, given how high in mercury dolphin meat tends to be.
Unfortunately, moral outrage is unlikely to end the dolphin hunts of Taiji, which are set to begin again on September 1—especially if that outrage comes from abroad. (Though we might need a different term than “hunt”—fishermen thee bang on metal boats to herd the dolphins into a closed cove, where they are harpooned to death.) In Japan right-wing nationalists fought to prevent The Cove from being shown. They lost, but the movie became a nationalist football as much as an environmental film, and there’s little evidence right now that the Japanese government will back down from its push to weaken limits on international whaling or dolphin killing. (Not that hunting is the only way we can kill dolphins—the hundreds of the animals killed each year in Taiji is dwarfed by the number killed as bycatch during commercial fishing in the Pacific Ocean each year.) Tradition or not, isn’t it time to stop?