In August, I stepped off a bus along a remote coastline on New Zealand’s South Island and was enchanted by what I saw. To the north, the jagged curtain wall of the Kaikoura Ranges soared over the coast; to my right, the sea, hiding within it the vast biodiversity of the submarine Kaikoura Canyon; and perched along the peninsula on which I was standing, the charming, low-key resort town of Kaikoura.

Kaikoura has long depended for its livelihood on the marine resources harvested from that sea, beginning with the Ngati Kuri Maori people who first fished there, followed by the European whaling stations in the 1840s. But the last whale was harpooned in 1964, and I was there last month to see whether New Zealand’s premier whale-watching resort had any lessons for Japan’s whaling towns.

I had arrived in an off-season period, but there were tourists around, most of them international. Sitting with me on a trip run by the Whale Watch company to see sperm whales were young backpackers and families from China, South Asia and Europe.

After the trip I spoke with the general manager of this Ngati Kuri-owned company, Kauahi Ngapora. He told me about its beginnings with “a small, privately funded boat” in 1987 and about its present-day success, with an annual revenue of 10 million New Zealand dollars ($8.2 million, ¥885 million), its catamarans taking out up to 100,000 tourists every year.

He also told me that Whale Watch’s entrepreneurship drove Kaikoura’s modernization from a declining rural backwater into a world class, EarthCheck-accredited eco-tourism destination — a community of 3,600 people balancing an annual intake of 800,000 to 1 million visitors with a commitment to conserving its marine habitats, under national and Maori customary law.

Ten days later I was in Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture, to see how it compared with Kaikoura. Taiji is also a charming resort town, of similar size to Kaikoura. Located on a picturesque coastline of deep, sheltered inlets and coves, it has numerous sites showcasing its whaling heritage, including old shrines, monuments and the Taiji Whale Museum, which boasts fascinating exhibits illustrating the town’s four centuries of whaling history.

There are also striking differences. In Kaikoura, tourists observe wild marine life, such as whales, dolphins and seals, only in their natural habitats. In Taiji, visitors observe captive dolphins held in the whale museum’s cramped pools and aquarium, and in its enclosed dolphin-show inlet, though there are small-scale dolphin-watching tours. Around town, restaurants sell whale and dolphin meat dishes.

A few hundred meters down the road I stumbled on the inlet made famous by the 2009 Oscar-winning film “The Cove,” where I saw tourists swimming, under supervision, with dolphins that are kept in pens there. I also noticed that Taiji’s hotels looked old and faded, and I appeared to be the only non-Japanese visitor in town. “This place could be doing better,” I thought.

Indeed, Taiji tourism is on a downward slide familiar to many Japanese rural tourist destinations. Annual — largely domestic — tourist numbers fell from around 389,000 in 1998 to 246,000 in 2009, and annual visits to the whaling museum dropped from a high of 478,573 in 1974 to 141,688 in 2009.

Since fisheries, the mainstay of Taiji’s economy is also (with one exception, which I will return to shortly) in decline due to overfishing, falling profitability and an aging, shrinking workforce, Taiji faces serious economic challenges.

Taiji could develop an eco-tourism strategy like Kaikoura’s to attract more international visitors. With its established tourist industry — and if access to Kansai International Airport is improved — the transition would be easier than it was for Kaikoura. For, as Whale Watch’s Ngapora told me, when the firm started, “tourism was a dirty word” and some hostile local white people even sabotaged its operations.

Taiji has plans for a 28-hectare marine park, where tourists can interact with captive whales and dolphins. An official at Taiji city council told me that it is also intended to appeal to foreign tourists. When I asked him how they would deal with foreign tourists’ unease about such a place — influenced by the Sea Shepherd activist group — he replied, “We’re thinking about that.”

With this plan, Taiji could be groping towards an eco-tourism future. However, Jun Morikawa, a scholar who has studied Japan’s whaling establishment and diplomacy, reminded me there is also a small but powerful “chorus” of pro-whaling politicians, Japan Fisheries Agency bureaucrats, whaling industry insiders, academics and media pundits who want what they see as Japan’s “indigenous traditions defended to the last breath.”

For them, that means the “traditional” blood-letting in the Cove must also continue. But if it does, few foreign tourists will come.

Early in September, veteran dolphin activist Ric O’Barry was in Japan, working with former dolphin hunter Izumi Ishii to push the Taiji eco-tourism message. O’Barry described to me Taiji’s depressed tourism situation, including the closures of hotels and restaurants.

“I love Taiji. It’s got one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world,” he said. “It has such great potential.”

But as he made clear to me, a major obstacle to Taiji eco-tourism is the profitability of the dolphin drive hunts, and especially of the dolphins captured alive and trained by the Taiji Whale Museum for sale to domestic and foreign aquariums. O’Barry says that such dolphins can fetch up to $150,000 each. Ceta Base, an online database that tracks the marine mammal captive industry using figures from the government and activists, estimates that in the 2013-14 season, 158 dolphins were captured alive and 834 slaughtered for their meat. Between January and November 2013, 78 Taiji dolphins were exported for an estimated total price of ¥278 million ($2.64 million).

There are other obstacles. A dolphin activist named Takayo told me, “The fishermen will not swallow their pride unless we (activists) swallow our anger.” Meanwhile, she said, “even those Japanese who don’t eat whale and dolphin meat feel like our culture is under attack by foreign activists.” Takayo asked that her last name not be used, because she has received online threats and harassment due to her advocacy.

After decades of confrontations with foreign whaling opponents and propagation of a national pro-whaling discourse, whale and dolphin hunting is no longer simply an economic issue. Many whaling advocates now frame it as a matter of cultural identity and preservation. Hunting and eating cetaceans, or even just defending those practices, become affirmations of Japanese identity against foreign attacks.

Anthropologists note that this cultural self-presentation feeds into Taiji’s branding as a kujira no machi (whale town) to domestic tourists. Old traditions and festivals have been revived, while cetacean meat and even the captive dolphin shows are marketed as aspects of its cultural experience. This will be difficult to modify to accommodate foreign tourists’ sensibilities.

The Ngati Kuri people of Kaikoura struck me as more pragmatic. Their traditional designation of cetaceans as taonga (treasure) has adapted through time to changing circumstances, indicating their status as rare, divine gifts of food washed up on beaches in pre-European times, as a source of income during both the whaling and whale-watching eras, and as sacred animals to be protected and revered today.

However, whaling in Kaikoura is a distant memory. The hunting of larger cetaceans ceased in Taiji following the 1988 worldwide commercial whaling moratorium, but Taiji fishermen and their supporters insist that the dolphin drive hunts are part of their whaling tradition — even as critics insist that they are about profits, not tradition.

A greater role for Japanese activists in Taiji could deflate this “us against them” attitude and speed up the end of the dolphin hunts.

“In the end, this has to be solved within Japan, and by Japanese people,” Takayo said. “It should be safe for us to speak up and not be called unpatriotic.”

O’Barry agreed: “Foreign activists can’t bring about change. We need to let the Japanese take ownership of this issue and lead, though foreign journalists should continue covering Taiji. The world has a right to know.”

For my part, I remembered the Taiji Whale Museum’s exhibit about the enterprising young local men in the late 19th century who worked in the European and American whaling industries, before bringing home their technology to modernize whaling in Taiji. Though it seems unlikely to arise, such an internationalist outlook could renew Taiji again, as a heritage-rich kujira no machi — where cetaceans are worth more alive, protected and free.

Back in Kaikoura, I met a young German couple while I was inspecting the remains of a former whaling station. They were seasoned eco-tourists in high spirits after a swimming tour with wild dolphins, so we got to talking about animal rights.

“She became a vegetarian last December,” the husband said, pointing to his wife.

“I am too,” I said. “But I wonder about my ethical consistency,” I added, looking down at my leather shoes.

“Well,” she replied, “we have to start somewhere, don’t we?”

Comment for this article was sought, unsuccessfully, from the Taiji Whale Museum. Shaun O’Dwyer is an associate professor in the School of Global Japanese Studies, Meiji University. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

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