In early August, director Louis Psihoyos told The Toronto Star that his documentary, “The Cove,” had been submitted to the Tokyo International Film Festival and rejected. In the article he quoted an unnamed TIFF “director” who said that the festival receives funding from the Japanese government, which “doesn’t want this movie out there.” However, in an Aug. 17 report in Variety, a TIFF representative told Japan Times correspondent Mark Schilling that a decision hadn’t been reached yet. The festival lineup will be announced sometime in September.

“The Cove” depicts the annual mass killing of dolphins in the coastal town of Taiji in Wakayama Prefecture. The majority of the Japanese press has limited its reporting of the subject to the theatrical release of the movie overseas and passed on coverage of the dolphin slaughter itself. The Asahi Shimbun called the mayor of Taiji for a comment and he said he knew nothing of the movie. Most daily newspapers also reported that Taiji’s sister city in Australia has announced it will sever its relationship to the town if the dolphin killings continue. As The Japan Times has reported extensively, once a year hundreds of dolphins are driven into a cove in Taiji where some are separated to be sold to aquariums and dolphin shows. The rest are killed, supposedly for food. Many Japanese fishermen consider dolphins pests.

In Japan, Taiji is famous as a whaling town, ground zero for the country’s “whaling tradition.” It was the subject of a four-part series on NHK’s “History Doesn’t Sleep” program that ended last week.

Tomoya Akimichi, an anthropologist who acted as the series’ guide, showed how in isolated coastal communities like Taiji, where agriculture was difficult, whales used to be indispensable. Every part of the animal was consumed, and every member of the community had a part to play in the hunting and processing of whales. They revered whales, and held funerals for those they caught and killed, giving each one a posthumous Buddhist name.

The series explained the history of whaling in the West to provide contrast. Until the discovery of petroleum in the mid-19th century, whale blubber was used for making soap and lamp oil, and whale bone was an integral part of women’s clothing. American and British whalers wiped out most of the larger species in the Atlantic by the end of the 18th century, and moved on to the Pacific. By the time Commodore Matthew Perry arrived at Japan’s doorstep in 1853 and demanded the Edo government open the country, American ships were harvesting whales off Japan’s coast. In fact, that was the reason for Perry’s demand. American whalers needed ports-of-call for repairs and resupply. As many as 700 American ships were catching whales in Japan’s waters at that time. Taiji whalers were forced to go further out to sea and in weather they would normally avoid, resulting in one maritime disaster that killed more than a hundred.

When Japan’s subsistence whaling morphed into a commercial endeavor, whaling was no longer much of an industry in the West. The market for blubber and whale bone collapsed in the latter half of the 19th century, but Japan still consumed whale meat and developed sophisticated whaling technology, which became important after World War II when the country was starving.

Competition became “Olympian,” with Dutch and British whalers vying with Japan for catch in the seas around Antarctica. This frenzy of killing is what led to the near extinction of certain species and prompted the ever-diminishing quotas enacted by the International Whaling Commission in the 1960s and 70s. Holland and the U.K. caught whales for margarine, but once vegetable oils became cheaper the bottom fell out of the whale oil market. Japan bought their boats and their quotas.

With the rise of the international environmental movement, whales became a symbol of conservation, and Japan was demonized for hunting them. Following the IWC moratorium, Japan embarked on its infamous lethal research program to study whale numbers and sustainability. The rest of the world has labeled this program a sham, since the whales that are caught and killed end up on the market.

Akimichi’s point is that Western countries abandoned whaling only because it was no longer economically feasible. Though never stated outright, his implication is that these countries nearly drove the whale to extinction while using the animal uneconomically, keeping the blubber and throwing the rest away. Japanese whaling practices are more “ecological,” because they use the whole whale.

Since the West was no longer hunting whales, it fell under the sway of conservationists who viewed them as special creatures. Japan thinks they’re special, too, but it also sees them as food. Thus the idea that it’s OK to raise and slaughter cows and pigs but not hunt whales because of their “intelligence” strikes the Japanese as being hypocritical.

But, of course, “the Japanese” is a slippery term here, and one of the problems with Akimichi’s otherwise compelling narrative is the way he projects the past onto today’s population. He despairs over the loss of “whaling culture” and implies that if whale meat were more readily available again, it would spark a renaissance of basic values he identifies as being peculiarly Japanese.

When the most recent IWC meeting was taking place in Portugal last June, the Asahi Shimbun ran an article saying that while many Japanese thought the ban on whaling amounted to Japan-bashing, they were not particularly interested in eating whale. The findings of the research whaling program deserve attention, but its real purpose is to maintain a vestige of Japan’s commercial whaling activities in the face of general apathy, because once it’s gone it can never come back.

That seems to be the situation in Taiji, as well. The town has hardly any whaling industry to speak of any more, only a tradition of whaling. Dolphins are a stopgap, but the fact that the people of Taiji and the vernacular media don’t want to talk about it indicates they know it’s an indefensible one in the 21st century.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.