Most Taiji residents rest easy, refuse to change diet


TAIJI, Wakayama Pref. — Residents of Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture, appeared relieved Sunday after health specialists found no symptoms of mercury poisoning in their bodies, even though the hair samples of some residents contained high levels of methyl mercury.

And the people in the town with a centuries-old tradition of eating whale and dolphin said they won’t change their diet.

“I am relieved because experts said (methyl mercury) has no effects on our bodies. Everyone seemed relieved,” fish shop owner Shinichi Shiozaki, 60, said after a town hall meeting with residents, town officials and the National Institute for Minamata Disease, which conducted the tests.

“I will keep eating” whale and dolphin, he said.

The town of Taiji, which has a population of about 3,500, took hair samples from 1,137 residents who went in for regular health checkups and agreed to submit them for testing last summer and this winter amid criticism from animal right activists that the town is poisoning local residents by allowing the consumption of dolphin and whale meat.

The average amount of methyl mercury found in Taiji hair is 11.0 parts per million for men and 6.63 ppm for women, compared with 2.47 for men and 1.64 for women on average in 14 other places in Japan, according to the institute.

Those with extremely high levels underwent further tests to check their vision and other senses and their ability to exercise, but no one was found to have symptoms typically observed in mercury poisoning patients, it said.

Of the 1,137 residents, 643 had not eaten whales or dolphins within a month before their hair was tested.

Eight people interviewed in Taiji by The Japan Times eat dolphin and whale up to 10 times a month between September and March and occasionally during the other half of the year when hunting is out of season. In most cases, they eat it raw.

Katsutoshi Mihara the 72-year-old chairman of the Taiji Municipal Assembly and head of a local group opposed to the International Whaling Commission’s ban on whaling, went to Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture, for more thorough checks and came away with a clean bill of health.

“I will not change my lifestyle. Look at me, this old man is very healthy,” Mihara told journalists after attending the town hall meeting.

A 42-year-old woman whose family runs a seafood store in Taiji said she didn’t have her hair tested but heard that some who did got warnings in the form of red or yellow cards indicating high methyl mercury levels, and went to get a more thorough checkup.

However, some of those rated high for mercury don’t even eat dolphin or whale as they don’t like the taste. “I don’t know what advice they get,” she said.

The woman’s shop sells tuna, mackerel and other fish, and dolphin and whale meat. The dolphin meat is exclusively from Taiji, while the whale meat can come from Taiji, Iwate and Miyagi prefectures, or the Antarctic Ocean.

The woman said she hasn’t notice a drop in whale and dolphin sales since the hair test.

However, she is critical of the documentary “The Cove” because it targets Taiji even though there are other places where people hunt dolphins.

Her 20-year-old daughter likes to eat dolphin and whale meat sashimi with soy sauce and ginger and enjoys it five or six times a month. She didn’t even know the town was checking residents’ hair.

“I won’t be scared even if some people have a high mercury level. The town has many old people. If mercury is bad for your health, why do they live so long?”

A man in his 50s said eating dolphin and whale has long been a part of Taiji, with people both young and old consuming the marine mammals.

“Some foreigners criticize us, but whale and dolphin (to us) are like beef and chicken for them. It’s just our culture,” he said.