Kaikoura and Taiji: a tale of two whaling towns


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

  • Sandra Bell

    Could it be a good idea to take a handfull of the Taiji fishermen to Kaikoura to see how Taiji could become?

  • Gordon Graham

    I too wonder about my “ethical consistency”

  • Catherine Fahy

    This is exactly why I think that change needs to come about from within the Japanese people themselves. It is no good getting angry with the whole of the Japanese people they will just think it is foreign interference – the change will start with them and move out. Change will not come from anger, change will come from enlightening and communicating with the ordinary Japanese people. Keep the conversation going, communication is good.

  • Teresa Wagner

    Is it also “tradition” for Japan to defy laws? As they are openly defying the ruling of the International Court of Justice that they cannot kill whales in the Southern Ocean? Is it their tradition to have no honor? No respect for the law?

    • Avery

      Dolphins are not endangered.

      • Teresa Wagner

        They kill whales in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, not dolphins.

  • Karina1

    Do the Japanese really not care how barbaric this cetacean killing makes them look to the rest of the whale loving world?

  • timefox

    THE FOREIGN ELEMENT is used for a tag. The foreigner made the problem. It seems that there is the recognition.

  • jaguar706

    It’s not their culture under attack, it’s their intelligence .

  • KenjiAd

    This is a very good, balanced article. Most other articles tend to fall into either of the two extreme camps.

    One camp is attacking the actions of Taiji fishermen as barbaric and inhumane. The other camp is defending them as “traditions.”

    Between these two extreme thoughts, people have neglected to recognize the fact that Dolphin hunting provides a desperately needed income to those fishermen in this small deteriorating fishermen’s town.

    It’s important to recognize that justification of Dolphin hunting based on “tradition” was manufactured by some of the conservative Japanese politicians who view any interference by Westerners as a threat to their conservative, xenophobic values.

    Those fishermen are not trying to protect the tradition. They are trying to make a living.

    Stopping the Dolphin hunt would disrupt their livelihood. Equally important, we must acknowledge that they are not doing anything
    illegal however “barbaric” their actions appear to many.

    If these fishermen could find alternative way to support their livelihood, I believe they would stop Dolphin hunting.

    Some of those environmentalists seem only interested in destroying what they view as inhumane killing of Dolphins. Ironically, if they really want to stop the killing, they should be working with the fishermen.

  • kai

    “Just as the human slaves were freed in the U.S. south, the marine mammals slaves will be freed from SeaWorld and other marine parks.” ~ Teresa Wagner

    So you are equating African-American slaves with marine animals? Long hours in the cotton fields with SeaWorld? The Underground Railroad with your self-righteousness?

    You should be ashamed of yourself… and you should also choose your metaphors more wisely. I have never understood the mind of one who is Pro-tertiary Consumer and Anti-quaternary Consumer… It’s like saying you can’t feed your cat sardines. Weird.

    Why do the Japanese have to change…? You are talking about a country that was established 2000 years ago; and the US, 238 years… Do you have no respect for culture and reality? There are a number of issues is the West that you could be using your misguided and ill-managed energy.
    “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude” ~ Maya Angelou… Now that’s a woman who knows truth.

    • Allie

      Because people learn and cultures change. No longer people burn bodies from a strange illness because we have learned that the illness can become airborn and spread further.
      Times have changed, and there are many other things Japan has also changed in their culture as time has moved on, so why are they fighting to keep something so barbaric as to slaughtering creatures, or keeping them in small tanks for their own personal amusment. It’s just disgusting and also needs to be updated to the current century. A culture that doesnt evolve is doomed to fail. And it can still be learned and talked about, but there is no reason it still needs to be in practice.
      And I think you need to re-read the quote, it completely applies. She is not comparing the two but saying they are in similar situtations, living a life only at the commands of another.

      • kai

        I don’t find it appropriate to either compare or make simile between human beings and marine mammals. Do you think a wild creature that can potentially be dangerous is equal to, umm, let’s say, your mother. I certainly wouldn’t want someone to reference me or any of my human family or friends in the same category as an animal.

        I am confused about your culture change example about body burning. How is this related to changing the culture of cuisine and profession? Give me a relevant example of how humans have changed their culture towards keeping animals and raising, hunting, and butchering food. Then I will gladly respect your opinions.

        Americans (Western nations) still keep their mammalian cattle and other livestock in barns and/or enclosed ranches, correct? They get sent to slaughter houses where often times machines inhumanely slit their throats and prepare their bodies to be butchered, correct? Has this been updated to the current century without my knowledge?

        Americans (Western nations) still keep horses in stables and pets confined in aquariums, cages and backyards, correct? Has this been updated to the current century?

        Let me be perfectly clear, I like Flipper just as much as the next person. But my feelings of endearment have no contest to a nation’s long history. And yes, a country does need change and updating in order to grow; however, mainstreaming all countries would leave our world quite boring.

      • Shaun O’Dwyer

        The quality of debates over whaling, dolphin drive hunts and the captive dolphin industry would improve a lot if both sides stopped talking so much about “Japanese culture”. Japan is a thoroughly modern nation and currently the third largest economy in the world. Even allowing for its supposed ethnic homogeneity it has a great diversity of cultures, regional, culinary, etc. and since the 1970’s at least its citizens have been eating less and less whale and more and more “mammalian cattle”, pork and chicken. Whale meat these days is an exotic, minority cuisine for foodies, the nostalgic and inhabitants of some old whaling towns. It makes just as little sense to attack as to defend whaling and whale meat cuisine as “Japanese culture”.

      • kai

        Because I have lived in Japan for the past 10 years, I tend to only hear comments regarding their whaling; thus, the emphasis on Japanese culture. Whaling should be considered a world culture… Are there any demonizing documentaries on whaling in Norway and Iceland? Seriously curious.
        I currently live in a town that has a long history of whaling. Because of regulations, the area fishermen have had to stop their own whaling, but still receive whale meat and products from an “unknown location.” Whale meat and other products are readily available. I eat whale at least a couple times a month. Whale meat is used in School Lunches and can be found at all grocery stores. For the people around me, it is culture and part of tradition.
        I also lived in Wakayama, Japan for a year during high school.. another large whaling community. So I have learned to view the whalers as the “Cowboys of the Ocean.”
        I do not agree with over-killing or killing for sport… The whalers that I have met are kind, honest men that have respect for the animals they hunt. I hope people can recognize them as humans that are doing what they have always done rather than merely the Japanese men that kill whales.

      • JFYI

        Meat consumption per capita

        #1 Denmark 145.9kg per person
        #2 New Zealand 142.1kg per person
        #5 USA 124.8kg per person
        #8 Spain 118.6kg per person
        #12 Canada 108.1kg per person
        #13 Ireland 106.3kg per person
        #14 France 101.1kg per person
        #18 Argentina 97.6kg per person
        #21 Austria 94.1kg per person
        #22 Portugal 91.1kg per person
        #24 Italy 90.4kg per person
        #25 Netherlands 89.3kg per person
        #30 Belgium 86.1kg per person
        #33 Brazil 82.4kg per person
        #34 Germany 82.1kg per person
        #35 UK 79.6kg per person

        #85 Japan 43.9kg per person

        ### Cetacean meat consumption per person per year in Japan = 30gram


        Just for your information.

        Where should you start really?

      • kai

        Dang.. When I was in Denmark, we ate a lot of breads, cheeses and fruits… and cured meats and herring. Lots of herring! Where was all the MEAT??

      • JFYI

        That list was a message to the author of the article.Shaun O’Dwyer If he is truly a vegetarian, and sets the vegetarianism in his ‘world agenda’, his focus must certainly shift from the Japanese cetacean consumption to something else. We can find a few more interesting things from that data, can’t we?

      • Shaun O’Dwyer

        @JFYI, it was actually economic issues that were more on my agenda in this article – esp. the potential economic incentives for Taiji to give up dolphin drive hunts and the live dolphin trade for eco/heritage based tourism. And the list you posted above also brings economic considerations to mind- like, we can only wonder at the huge amounts of money, and political and diplomatic capital, the Japanese government spends propping up a whaling industry which is of such marginal importance to Japanese consumers.

      • JFYI

        @Shaun I suggest you to examine deeper your ethical consistency and the consistency of the anti-camp (roughly the West) why they are against cetacean hunts in the first place. Does their logic endure a close examination?

        Your argument (if that was what you suggested there) wouldn’t be heard by the good minds of Japanese, because they are usually opposing against the arrogant minds of the anti-camp for the bigger causes than the economic benefits, or of the animal rights protection.

      • Shaun O’Dwyer

        Forgive me if my remarks offended you, JFYI. I have examined my ethical consistency and as I hint above, I have found it wanting. A point I have made in a previous article is that pro- and anti-whaling people alike need to do such an examination. And I would be very happy to see good-minded Japanese become more active in debating with each other the future of cetacean hunting and sustainable fisheries.

      • Lynette Bosma

        JFYI I must agree and disagree with you. You are right. Things need to change. But they need to change all over. Japanese tradition of hunting whales and dolphins needs to change and the rest of the worlds huge amount of meat consumption needs to change. But one thing that needs to change even more is the callous way we view animals for food. No longer is a cow or dolphin a animal with the right to dignity. It has become just a piece of steak or chop. We no longer respect nature and the bounty it provides. We as a species have become in humane. This is the change that needs to come first. We humans must find our humanity. In finding this we will see that the way we treat the very animals we eat, will be very different. Eat meat or fish or whatever you want, but treat that animal with dignity and allow it to die swiftly and without trauma. We brutalize cows and pigs in slaughterhouses and we brutalize dolphins in the cove and feroe islands. Change must come to us as humans. We need to realize that killing dolphins and whales has a very very negative impact on the oceans we rely on for food. Just as we need to realize that the vast amounts of beef cattle and pigs for meat are destroying the planet too. Don’t judge people fighting for animal welfare so harshly. They doing the right thing. It is only by their fight that change has come so far. And perhaps the changes they have instigated have given you and me a chance in this world and preserved our world for just a little bit longer

      • JFYI

        Is it about cruelty? What about shotgun deer hunts, ox hunts, bear hunts? Do you know how long they suffer? Have you done anything about it?
        Where does your that judgement of cruelty come from? From those obviously racist psychopath liar propaganda films like Cove?
        Has the whaling/ dolphining issue been set in in a part of universally agreed ‘vegetarian agenda’? If that was the case, Japanese will at least logically understand it. You must certainly know that Japanese had reduced cetacean consumption 1/100 level in the last 50 years, from the time that it was bigger than the beef& pork combined, when the whale meat was really their folks food? (They have increased other mammal meat consumption manifolds since, btw. )
        One part made a change to 1/100, and the other part is still increasing it. Who is the one that has to change then?
        “I feel good because I’m good and doing good. I am morally superior being than the barbaric them. ”
        It’s all about it. It is indeed an uglier greed of human mind than the quest for food, and than the minds that the hard working food producers have. Do you think the food producers are inferior to you in senses and minds? You are basically saying that, therefore you are the bigot and an ugly mind immeasurable.

  • Harpagornis Rex

    An excellent article: I was utterly shocked at the amount of environmental destruction in Japan. Does anyone have the links to a Japanese translation of this article


    When most (not all)
    other countries have animal abuse issues the people come together to fix the
    problem. Japan wants to turn its head and pretend everything is ok with the
    killing and abuse of the Taiji dolphins continue and then take a swim in the
    pool where they were barbarically slaughtered. Barely anyone will stand up for change.
    Like if I don’t see it, it’s ok…They tell me everything is alright so I
    believe it. They call it brainwashing and propaganda. When you cannot come
    together to help innocent beings and have compassion for them you society is in
    trouble and the world sees it.


    Kai, you need to take a second and think about this and know we just want change. We want you to have tourism that is beautiful not ugly. We want to help you change.

  • JFYI

    Annie? Hello hello? Wise up? Hah. Do you know that pigs and cattle are also mammals? By the way, Peter Singer is the most vivid example of self-righteous Messiah complex crusader with a shallowest analytic mind. have you examined it why?