Activists may shift tactics in Taiji

Many foreigners protest, but too few Japanese

by Jay Alabaster

The Associated Press

TAIJI, Wakayama Pref. — In the fervor of the Academy Awards in Hollywood on Sunday, last year’s winners were a distant memory. Half a world away in the fishing village of Taiji, few will ever forget the film that won in 2010 for Best Documentary Feature.

A year after “The Cove” received an Oscar for its scathing portrayal of Taiji’s dolphin hunting tradition, the tiny town in Wakayama Prefecture is still under siege by foreign activists. That has created a deep deadlock with Taiji’s fishermen, leading some activists to seek a different tack.

“I’m trying to get a grassroots movement going in Japan. I’ve come to realize, you can’t show up with a big stick and tell them what to do,” said Ric O’Barry, the veteran dolphin activist featured in “The Cove.”

A smattering of foreign protesters has come for years to Taiji, but since the success of the movie the sleepy town of 3,500 has been inundated. The environmental group Sea Shepherd has started a “Cove Guardian” program that brings visitors, new groups such as “Taiji Action Group” and “Eyes on Taiji” have sprung up, and many people have come on their own.

The influx has had little effect. The town’s two dozen dolphin hunters, most of whom are gruff ex-whalers, ignore the protesters as unwanted foreign pressure on their traditions, and have responded with elaborate tarp structures to hide the gorier aspects of their work. A rare public meeting between the two sides in November ended in confusion and discord, and town officials say the attention is largely a nuisance.

“We’re a small town, we really can’t get anything else done while this is going on,” said Masahiro Mukai, who normally runs the town’s volunteer fire department but now goes on regular patrols to monitor the activists.

So activists like O’Barry are trying to recruit more Japanese to their cause, publishing materials in Japanese and holding meetings with those who show an interest. Longtime Japanese activists like Masato Sakano have organized crowded forums in Tokyo to discuss the implications of “The Cove” and the Taiji hunts.

While many in the country feel the town should be allowed its traditional ways, others are coming to Taiji to protest or simply see for themselves.

“A lot of foreigners are helping us, but if we don’t do something on our own, this problem won’t be resolved,” said Yoshiko Wada, 33, a hairdresser who has visited the town six times.

The government permits about 20,000 dolphins to be hunted along Japan’s coasts each year. Only about 2,000 of those are taken in Taiji, but it is singled out mainly because it uses drive fishing, in which the animals are herded near to shore and slaughtered in shallow water, as opposed to being harpooned at sea.

This method also lends itself to capturing live animals, because they are relatively unscathed and can be examined up close by aquarium buyers or dolphin dealers. Those that aren’t picked are killed for meat or occasionally released.

In years past, several towns captured live dolphins in Japan, but now only Taiji does. So a complete end to the hunts would be difficult, because they have become crucial for the popular and lucrative dolphin shows throughout the country, and captive breeding is rare.

While killing dolphins for food remains a cultural touchstone, the hunts generate far more money from selling live animals. Bottlenose dolphins sold for meat typically go for several tens of thousands of yen, while prime live animals sell for more than ¥800,000 domestically and much more abroad. In the year ending last March, 79 dolphins were exported for ¥277 million, the government says.

With Taiji’s fishermen unlikely to bend to foreign pressure and the strong ties to Japan’s aquarium industry, a quick end to the hunts looks unlikely. Some foreign activists have called for protests directly at aquariums, but others question that approach.

“If we can’t shut down aquariums in our own countries, how do you go to the Japanese and ask them to do that here?” said Michael Dalton, an Australian activist living near Taiji.

Sigh of relief

WAKAYAMA (Kyodo) With the latest dolphin hunting season over, fishermen in Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture, are breathing a sigh of relief.

For them, the latest hunting season was an especially hard one, with the release of the Oscar-winning documentary “The Cove” last year drawing many foreign animal rights activists to the small coastal town.

“This is the first time in my life that our tradition of whale and dolphin hunting has become the target of criticism and mockery like this,” said Hirofumi Seko, 60, who represents dozens of whalers and dolphin hunters in Taiji.

Since the start of the season last September, Taiji fishermen had been under watch by activists. Some groups have leased condominiums in and around the town on a long-term basis, rent cars and drive to beaches early in the morning to film the fishermen’s work for release on the Internet. That’s how they solicit donations.

Seko, who has been involved in whaling for the past 35 years, said the latest season was a long one. “Finally, the stress is over,” he said.