Japanese activists fight against the tide to save whales and dolphins


It’s tough being a Japanese activist — especially if you are campaigning against whaling or dolphin hunting.

Just ask Takayo Yamaguchi, subjected to online abuse, death threats and hacking attacks since she pioneered “tweetstorm” dolphin defense campaigns on social media in Japan six months ago. Or veteran conservationist Sakae Hemmi, cofounder of ELSA Nature Conservancy in 1976, who has been questioned several times by police since she first became involved in activism against the dolphin hunts in Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture. Or Junichi Sato and Toru Suzuki, two Greenpeace Japan activists convicted of trespass and theft in 2010 after seizing a parcel of whale meat illicitly posted by a Japan scientific whaling employee, which they presented as evidence to prove allegations of embezzlement within the scientific whaling program.

Often unaware of these activists’ work, foreign opponents of Japan’s whaling and dolphin hunting wonder why there are so few Japanese critics. Something needs to be said about the obstacles Japanese activists face.

First of all, it’s difficult to resist the nationalism surrounding cetacean hunting, upheld by a mixed crowd of Fisheries Agency bureaucrats, politicians, journalists, academics and Net uyo (social media-based rightists). Even Japan Communist Party politicians have called for the protection of Japan’s whaling traditions and culinary culture. As Hemmi emphasized to me, in Japan whaling and dolphin hunting are “legal fisheries.” And the fishery business has existential and cultural importance; it’s considered essential to Japan’s food security and culinary identity, defined in part as a gyoshokubunka (marine food culture).

Accumulated resentment against decades of foreign criticism; a conviction that foreign activists and governments are threatening a key, if largely symbolic stronghold in Japanese fisheries (“once whaling falls, tuna fisheries will be next!”); and the politics of Japan’s scientific whaling boondoggle are all behind a deep “them and us” mentality promoted by Fisheries bureaucrats, politicians and pundits. It’s characterized by strident assertions of cultural difference, complaints of cultural imperialism and liberal helpings of the “eco-terrorism” slur.

The sometimes extreme tactics of foreign activist organizations and the racism of some foreign critics feed this defensive self-definition. Most Japanese rarely eat whale or dolphin meat, but they are sympathetic to complaints about arrogant foreigners trying to impose their values upon Japan.

These confrontations make life difficult for Japanese activists. Hemmi told me they “have to be very careful not to be mistaken for having a connection with Sea Shepherd,” the militant anti-whaling group founded by activist Paul Watson that hounds Japanese whaling vessels in the Southern Seas. Yamaguchi says other Japanese ask her why she doesn’t “protect Japanese from attacks by foreign activists.” She adds that “insulting the entire Japanese public (over the dolphin drive hunt in the cove in Taiji) is creating sympathy for Taiji fishermen.”

Another veteran conservationist expressed dismay at how the behavior of foreign activists has provided excuses “for the government to shut us out of talks with officials,” undermining years of patient lobbying in coalition with other conservation organizations.

Japanese activists are hardly alone in facing home-crowd animosity. Even in an anti-whaling stronghold like Australia, environmentalist and animal rights organizations are often accused of being “un-Australian” and “extremist” by powerful mining and livestock farming interests. Yet they can push back against critics in the court of public opinion, because — unlike many of their Japanese counterparts — they are often big, well-financed, well-connected NPOs.

Large donation-paying memberships and big budgets permit the hiring of numerous professional staff specializing in recruiting, lobbying and advocacy; and through these activities, such organizations can acquire credibility and leverage with politicians, industry groups, celebrities and the mass media. Expensive media-savvy campaigns allow them to influence public opinion directly.

Greenpeace Australia had 45,000 paying members in 2013, 70 full- and part-time employees and a budget of 17 million Australian dollars (¥1.5 trillion). Animals Australia, a top animal-welfare umbrella organization, claims 20,000 members, 22 full- and part-time staff and an annual budget of AU$3 million (¥278 million) in 2013.

Japan’s environmentalist and animal welfare organizations are proportionately smaller. Greenpeace Japan in 2013 had 5,000 members, 31 full- and part-time staff and a budget of ¥195 million. In the same year, the Nature Conservation Society of Japan had 25 full-time staff, 15,000 members and a budget of ¥254 million. Organizations working on campaigns against cetacean hunting are often far smaller, with one or two full-time staffers, or just a few volunteers. Then there are individuals like Yamaguchi, who works with the international Save the Blood Dolphins campaign to raise awareness of captive dolphins’ plight.

Why the disparity in scale and influence? Political scientists studying Japan’s NPO sector often invoke the Edo Period Confucian slogan “Kanson minpi” — “Revere officials and look down on the masses” — to explain the statist ideology of modern Japanese governance, which limited NPO growth until recent times.

Originating in the late 19th century and adopted from European models, this ideology put the state firmly in charge of Japan’s catch-up modernization: An elite educated bureaucracy decided economic and social goals, while industry and especially the public were expected to remain in the passenger seats. There — to paraphrase philosopher Masao Maruyama — people could easily “doze off over their rights”. Japanese statism achieved its complete form in the post-1945 era.

This statism traditionally admitted limited space for civil society groups, as political scientists like Keiko Hirata and Robert Pekannen have explained; they are ideally small, localized and cooperative with government. Activist groups don’t fit that formula easily. Though environmental movements developed in the 1960s and ’70s, they focused on “single-issue” causes and their appeal faded as most Japanese accepted government priorities on economic growth and increasing affluence.

After the 1995 Kobe earthquake, however, there was an upsurge in public support for volunteerism, just when faith in bureaucratic competence was also falling. Public pressure led to passage of an NPO law in 1998 that substantially lowered the financial requirements for NPO registration, established wide criteria for organizations to register under and streamlined their bureaucratic supervision.

Since the March 11, 2011, Tohoku disasters, registered volunteer NPOs have really come into their own (including one that this author co-directs). However, activist organizations still face statist prejudices and bureaucratic bias, especially when they are involved with push-button nationalist issues such as whaling and dolphin hunting — as Greenpeace Japan found, to its cost.

Many such organizations avoid NPO registration, in spite of the fund-raising status, enhanced prestige and (sometimes) tax deductibility it confers. Since 2010 Greenpeace Japan has been registered as a “general incorporated association.” This, Junichi Sato told me, is a “legal status with much more flexibility,” which also satisfies Greenpeace’s desire “to be independent from influences of authority.”

Hemmi said that ELSA didn’t apply for NPO registration because it didn’t want to be subjected to bureaucratic regulation. Other activists said that registration was too much trouble, or that Japanese groups campaigning against cetacean hunts are often too small and divided by factional rivalry to qualify for NPO registration anyway.

Skeptical readers might think that there is nothing wrong with this state of affairs. Large, cashed-up advocacy NPOs can have a distorting influence on government policy out of all proportion to their membership bases. After all, America’s National Rifle Association is also an NPO! And if Japanese anti-whaling and anti-dolphin hunting activists can’t change the minds of their fellow Japanese, then so be it.

There is another view, however, which sees activist organizations as a potentially powerful but loyal opposition, countering the outsize influence of the Japan Fisheries Agency and whaling nationalism in shaping policy, diplomacy and public opinion about whaling, dolphin hunting and fisheries.

In such a role, these groups could bring to the Japanese public’s notice problems with transparency, waste and scientific credibility in the “research whaling” program, air questions about mercury contamination in cetacean meat and promote economic alternatives for the declining fishing towns involved in whaling and dolphin hunting.

Most of all, they could mobilize the public to push the Japan Fisheries Agency and its political allies away from whaling nationalism and toward pro-active commitment to fisheries conservation, at home and on the high seas, in collaboration with other governments and NPOs.

“To me, protecting dolphins means protecting the ocean, and protecting the ocean means protecting us,” says Yamaguchi, summing up her holistic vision. “It’s not only because dolphins are pretty”.

To achieve those goals, and to get themselves heard above the confrontations between the Japanese government and foreign activist organizations, Japanese activist groups will need to pull together and acquire more finances, size and domestic and international influence. For their part, foreign activists should ease off the confrontation tactics and provide more resources, advice and moral support to Japanese activists instead.

Shaun O’Dwyer is an associate professor in the School of Global Japanese Studies, Meiji University, and a co-director of the It’s Not Just Mud NPO. Foreign Agenda offers a forum for opinion about issues related to life in Japan. Comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • Deborah SG

    What makes the foreigners “militant”? I don’t see any militancy. Examples, please? “For their part, foreign activists should ease off the confrontation tactics and provide more resources, advice and moral support to Japanese activists instead.” – Observation is not confrontation. Been to Taiji lately? No confrontation is taking place.

    • Deborah SG

      But great explanation about what ecology-minded folks in Japan are facing.

    • Gordon Graham

      I would argue that ramming a whaling vessel is both militant and confrontational

      • Christopher Glen

        Ramming? I’m afraid the only ramming that occurs, is done by the Japanese

      • Gordon Graham

        One of the benefits of living in the information age is one can almost immediately check the veracity of such a claim by simply typing in “Sea Shepherd rams Japanese whaling vessel” on Youtube or Google…and low and behold one is in a better position to judge the credibility of such a claim…

      • Erik Jacobs

        Not wrong there, but harpooning whales might also be very confrontational ( mostly for the whales )

      • Gordon Graham

        Agreed, as brutal as ,say, slitting the throats of pigs

      • kension86

        I wish… it would be as “quick” of a death as slitting the throats. But the reality is much different for the whales.

        Even though the hunters do not intend for it, it simply takes much longer to kill a whale than other animals.

      • Gordon Graham

        When I was 12 years old I did a homestay with an Inuit family. They eat seal meat. Know how they kill them? Well, they shoot them with a rifle mostly. Trouble is the rifle almost always only maims them, so they bludgeon their brains out with a baseball bat. Needless to say I was mortified when I witnessed this as a 12 year old. However, upon reflection I came to realized that I grew up pampered in a big city where my killing was done for me, out of sight, and not in a culture of hunters where I’d have to get my hands dirty. I guess that was the point of the homestay.

      • kension86

        > “However, upon reflection I came to realized that I grew up pampered in a big city where my killing was done for me,out of sight, and not in a culture of hunters where I’d have to get my hands dirty. ”

        That’s what’s taught in SOC101 for me, with whale oil being the reference example.

        It’s certainly much more valuable to learn such lesson through RL experience than from textbook.

  • Helen Tam-Semmens

    The reason foreigners don’t know about these Japanese activists because no Japanese media covers their work! It is a constant complaint by Japanese activists, that their local media refused to pick up the news. That’s why they often have to recruit foreigners’ help to get the words out. If it were not for foreigners’ making noise in foreign media, Japan Time would never have covered this story.

    Even now, Japan Times is clearly biased. For instance, dolphins and whales are not even fish, but mammals that are second only to us in intelligence. However, Japan Times choose to repeat the scripted mantra that they are merely fish, and that it is Japanese tradition to hunt them, which are all lies.

    I have participated in Takayo Yamaguchi’s tweetstorms which try to show dolphin intelligence, and that hunting and killing dolphins is similar to brutally hunting and killing entire families of human beings. And such massacre happens almost everyday in Taiji, 6 months out of a year. Even more horrific killing happens in other parts of Japan. About 20,000 are killed every year.

  • Christopher Glen

    Japanese people fail to realise that until they stop hunting dolphins in Taiji, and whales in Antarctica, nothing is going to change

  • Mayu S

    This article explains the Japanese activists and the NPO culture really well, however its indication on activists’ rationale is very poor- what are they fighting for and why? To me it still sounds like they do it “because dolphins are cute”, because it doesn’t specifically explain how “protecting the ocean means protecting us”. It’s very vague and writer wouldnt have been blamed for being biased if he had elaborated more on the scientific rationale of the activists.

    • Shaun O’Dwyer

      That rationale has to be read between the lines, Mayu, but it is taken up more in my other Japan Times articles on this subject. Apart from the humanitarian issues in whaling and dolphin hunting, lots of money, resources and diplomatic capital are being wasted propping up industries whose products cater to a very small customer base. Not only is this a waste, but it is also a distraction from a very serious issue that should be of greater concern to the Japanese fisheries industry and to Japanese consumers alike: the problem of global overfishing. Addressing these problems will require a change in mindset from “we must protect our food culture and food self sufficiency” to a more internationally minded “we must help promote global marine conservation”. Yes I know, its not only Japan’s problem.

  • everythinggoes

    People are lame and dumb to abuse another human.


    It’s usually a good thing to bring a topic up for debate. This article does a fine job in some areas but is poor in others.

    1st drop the militant when referring to groups opposing whaling and dolphin hunts. It is a propaganda tactic to set it as ideological common sense. Evidence overwhelmingly shows that the institutions of the state and finance are much more militant with their actions and tactics. And yes this is still true even with the constant and sadly mainstreamed propaganda from groups like Glenn Inwood’s Omeka PR firm.
    2nd Why the focus on “foreign activists” being the problem? Do you really believe this is the reason Japanese activists get no seat at the table? It seems to me the bigger story is the harassment of these local activists by their own institutions.
    But then activists are not really the issue here, it is the continued slaughter and slavery of sentient beings for financial gains. Just follow the money.

    • Shaun ODwyer

      OK. 1. The use of the term “militant” predates governmental propaganda and the slick PR of the likes of Glenn Inwood. For instance, the early 20th British suffragettes under the Pankhursts’ leadership were self-described militants. Given the kinds of tactics they used - window smashing, arson and fist fighting with police – this description was accurate. Given the kinds of tactics Sea Shepherd has used, say in Reykjavik Harbour in 1986 or more recently in the Southern oceans, this description is accurate for them too, whether or not you agree with those tactics. I would not describe other organizations such as Japan Greenpeace or the Dolphin Project in such terms, however.
      2. Foreign activists have had their role to play in the politicization of whaling and dolphin hunting in Japan. In the late 1970’s these were already dying industries, with rapidly declining consumer demand for cetacean meat. So why is it that whaling and dolphin hunting have become totemic issues for Japanese nationalists and symbols of Japan’s cultural and culinary differences with the “west”? Japanese bureaucratic obsessions with food security and a protectionist attitude to fisheries and whaling have played a big part. But it’s taken two to tango, and the insensitive and provocative behavior of some foreign activist groups and critics over decades have also been decisive in hardening Japanese attitudes, and in cementing the whole “our culture vs. your cultural imperialism” mindset. There have been lost opportunities to work with Japanese conservation and animal welfare organizations to domesticate anti-whaling/anti-dolphin hunting norms with the Japanese public, and to strengthen the hand of Japanese activists in their campaigning to close these industries down. There are promising signs that those opportunities are now being taken up, but much more needs to be done.

      • STONEIF

        I get your point. It is the framing it sets,
        that of a convenient, violent other. Only one side uses any form of violence against life in this struggle, the ones killings and enslaving cetaceans. Maybe that needs to be highlighted at times.

        As for a dying industry that is one way to view it but as long as the yearly transfer of hundreds of millions of yen in tax money
        subsides to the fisheries and other more dubious groups continues, not sure it was
        ever accurate. And now a new lucrative revenue stream is being designed, the
        capturing and enslavement of dolphins for the growing dolphins swimming in
        pools industry. Seems like some worthy news stories there. While Sea Shepherd
        makes a nice boogeyman for nationalists and faux pride, it has kept a spotlight on the issue and through direct action, stopped slaughter of thousands of whales in the Southern Ocean far, far from Japan, which at least for one year was
        stopped by the IWC. Without the spotlight and actions, the outcomes would be
        far worse for our planet and for cetaceans in particular. Do appreciate your piece
        highlighting that there are local activists in this struggle. Very important and worthy of being in every Japanese paper.

  • June Killington


    We’re speaking up for the captive performing dolphins at Sea World Gold Coast Australia with the help of international and local celebrities but we also need your help, and voice.

    Anthony La Paglia, Simon Cowell, Shailene Woodley, Pamela Anderson, Olivia Newton John, Ricky Gervais, Bryan Adams, Matt Damon, Matthew Modine, Willy Nelson, Cher,Rachel Hunter, Tommy Lee, Jennifer Aniston, Maggie Q, Paul Rudd, Woody Harrelson, Ben Stiller, Robin Williams, David Crosby, Courtney Cox, Dave Navarro, Mariska Hargitay, James Gandolfini, John Leguizamo, Russell Simmons, Olivia Wilde, Scout LaRue Willis, Russell Brand, Joan Jett, Howard Stern, Aaron Paul (from ‘Breaking Bad’), Kathy Najimy, Niki Taylor, Hayden Panettiere, Mayim Bialik, Meg Matthews, Chet Faker, Wil Anderson, Todd McKenny, Christine Anu, Steve Kilbey, Marcia Hines, Sia, Tyson Beckford, Sinnitta, Ewan McGregor, Steve-O, Conan O’Brien, Elvira, Josh Groban, Jason Biggs, Motley Crue, Arianna Grande, Krysten Ritter, Chloe Lattanzi, Sharni Vinson, Samantha Fox, Alexandra Paul, Gina Liano, Jonathan Coleman, Alyce Platt, The Veronicas, Lincoln Lewis, Phil Jamieson (Grinspoon), Anthony Ackroyd, Livinia Nixon, Former Miss Universe Australia Laura Dundovic, Havana Brown, Cheyenne Tozzi, Caitlin Stasey, Silvana Philippoussis, Ella Hooper, Annalise Braakensiek all say:


    “The whole world is up in arms about Sea World and other aquaprisons. It’s time that Australians opened their eyes and became educated to the cruelty of trapping and keeping captive dolphins”. June Bird Killington – Founder of SEAWORLD SHUT DOWN on Facebook.

    ‘SEAWORLD SHUT DOWN on Facebook. The First & Only Campaign Against Sea World in Australia’ . Over 7,000 Followers.

    Also on Twitter @seaworldisevil – Over 4,700 Followers

    Trevor Long, Marine Science Director at Sea World Gold Coast says: “Dolphins aren’t some amazing creature, in the wild they just rape and rape and rape”. (Quoted from Gold Coast Bulletin interview January 2015).

    Please help us to speak up for the captive performing dolphins at Sea World on the Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia.

    We love them rescuing cetaceans but we loathe them keeping dolphins as captives in their aquaprison.

    The dolphins need to be rehabilitated and freed or taken to a safe sanctuary/bay/cove paid for by Sea World to live out their lives without human interference.

    India, Croatia, Hungary New York, South Carolina, Bolivia, Chile, Costa Rica, Cyprus, Nicaragua, Slovenia, Switzerland, Brazil, Luxembourg, Norway and the U.K have already banned cetaceans in captivity and so far there are over 15,000 signatures on the petition and a Facebook page with over 7,000 followers.

    The dolphins are caught from the ocean and brought to tanks/lagoons and are also bred in captivity where they are forced to perform for paying customers and given dead fish but only if they do tricks. All to make money for greedy Sea World business people.

    “Sea World Gold Coast Australia – Keeping dolphins as prisoners since the 70s”