Taiji champions heritage to defend endangered tradition



In the face of international outrage, Japan is defending its tradition of whale hunting by championing cultural heritage and food resource diversity.

But with commercial whaling virtually banned and what little hunting activity there is coming under fire, the quest to keep alive its whaling culture could require a leviathan effort.

Several fishing villages serve as bases for coastal hunting of species of smaller whales that are not protected by the International Whaling Commission’s regulations.

The village of Taiji in Wakayama Prefecture bills itself as the birthplace of the traditional Japanese style of whale hunting.

“We make use of the entire whale body,” said Miyato Sugimori, a senior official in a local fishermen association, explaining what is seen as a unique feature of Japan’s whaling culture. “We do not just extract oil and discard the carcass.”

In Taiji, there is a whale museum, and the gate of the Shinto shrine is made of whale bone. There is also a monument to console the souls of dead whales, and a memorial service is held every April.

Traditional whale hunting by Western countries such as the United States and Britain was intended mainly to extract whale oil, which was used to light oil lamps and make soap. In Japan, whale meat, skin and entrails are consumed as food, while whale teeth are used in craft work.

Taiji became a focus of international outrage in 2010, when “The Cove,” a U.S. documentary that chronicled dolphin hunting by the village’s fishermen, won an Academy Award.

The hunting season begins in September and continues into the following spring. A convoy of fishing boats drive herds of dolphins and pilot whales, a species not covered by the IWC’s commercial whaling moratorium, into an inlet where fishermen catch and kill them.

Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a U.S.-based antiwhaling group, has also set its sights on Taiji’s dolphin hunting. Sea Shepherd activists filmed hunting activity and published video on the Internet, calling for protests over the hunts and taking in donations for their cause.

The firestorm of outrage touched off by the negative media exposure has prompted Taiji fishermen to take steps to prevent the process of slaughter from being seen by the prying eyes of outsiders.

Previously, it was not difficult for outsiders to see a blood-red sea in the aftermath of the hunt. Now, tarps are put up to obstruct the view of the inlet area where the slaughter is carried out.

Since 2011, a temporary police box has been set up near the coast during the hunting season to watch for activists. As a result, skirmishes between activists and fishermen have decreased, but an air of tension still hovers in the town.

On the starting day of the hunting season last fall, around 50 foreign activists staged a protest rally in Taiji.

Until the 1970s, eating whale meat was not an unusual practice in Japan, with dishes like fried whale a fixture on school lunch menus.

Now, whale meat is prized as a rarity, although stocks of whale meat are said to remain unsold perhaps because of the high price.

In addition to coastal whaling, Japan catches a limited number of whales in the Antarctic Ocean under IWC-sanctioned research whaling, which is permitted for checking whale populations and other purposes aimed at conservation efforts.

In recent years, the research whaling activity has been a favorite target of attacks, both physical and verbal, by Sea Shepherd. The chase game between the Japanese whaling fleet and Sea Shepherd boats seeking to obstruct the hunt in the Antarctic Ocean has become an annual ritual.

Greenpeace is also urging Japan to abandon whale hunting, asserting that controlled hunting is difficult to enforce. The line of attack undermines the notion of sustainable whaling, which could be a key to lifting of the commercial whaling moratorium.

Japan’s official line on whaling is that whale catches provide “valuable food resources” that “should be utilized in a sustainable manner based on best scientific evidence,” as explained by the Fisheries Agency on its website.

Nobuyuki Yagi, an associate professor at the University of Tokyo, also supports controlled hunting as long as endangered species of whales remain off-limits. “It would be better to keep diverse food resources available,” he said.

Although Japan has sought to have the whaling moratorium lifted, the IWC has been bogged down in paralysis amid the continuing tug of war between prowhaling members such as Japan, Norway and South Korea, and opponents like the United States and Australia.

Whale hunting in the Antarctic Ocean has drawn criticism within Japan, too, as a costly activity that wastes taxpayers’ money or as a cause of international ill feelings.

In an attempt to seek acceptance of their hunting culture, Taiji fishermen once reached out to antiwhaling activists and held a dialogue meeting, but the two sides failed to see eye to eye.

“Antiwhaling activity has become a money-collecting business,” Sugimori asserted. “Whatever we may say, we can’t expect understanding.”

  • Teresa Wagner

    “The thinking person must oppose all cruel customs no matter how deeply rooted in tradition or surrounded by a halo.” Dr. Albert Schweitzer

  • Michael

    People would pay to see dolphins and whales alive in the water.
    I think the tourist opportunities would outstrip whaling and killing dolphins makes Japan look very bad on a world stage.The Taiji old timers need to change from killing to preserving .Developing a tourist industry with dolphin and whale watching means a future for Taiji that keeps the connection to the sea .I think Greenpeace should help fund the transition to tourism as an acknowledgement that change is difficult in old traditions.

  • AnimuX

    Unfortunately, the author of this article has failed to perform basic research on modern whaling, international response, and the reality of Japan’s ongoing annual slaughter of whales.

    First of all, Taiji really is one of the few places in the world that can claim a real tradition of whaling that dates back to the 1600s. However, history shows that Japan adopted Norwegian modern industrial whaling methods of mass production (including Norwegian made ships and even actual Norwegian whalers) in 1900 to profit from the export of whale oil to western countries for things like lamp fuel and margarine.

    Professor Jun Morikawa, author of “Whaling in Japan: Power, Politics, and Diplomacy”, explains that whale meat became a substitute source of protein during post WWII food shortages. The government included whale meat in compulsory school lunches to ensure children did not suffer from malnutrition. However, as soon as Japanese families could afford other meats they stopped buying whale. Demand has declined consistently since the 1970s. Whale was removed from the lunch menu in schools until recent years.

    Morikawa also explains that Japan’s whaling continues today for the benefit of corrupt bureaucrats who ensure tax funding in the fisheries budget for whaling only to leave public office and take high paid jobs in the commercial whaling industry. This type of corruption is so common in the Japanese government there is a word for it: “amakudari”.

    In fact, Japan’s Institute for Cetacean Research was unable to sell 75% of its whale meat at auction last year. If the corrupt government did not include whale meat in school lunches in order to justify spending even more tax money on whaling then most Japanese children would never know the taste of whale. Only a tiny fraction of the Japanese population actually consumes whale these days. So much for ‘tradition’.

    The anti-whaling movement began as a reaction to the fact that the world’s whaling industries (with Japan as one of the worst offenders) were responsible for driving nearly every species of large whale to the brink of extinction. Furthermore, the act of killing whales as observed everywhere is generally considered inherently inhumane.

    For decades Japan has violated whaling regulations — as illustrated in Isao Kondo’s book about his experiences as a whaling industry executive for decades — to include exceeding quotas, ignoring size limits, hunting out of season, killing protected species, and even facilitating ‘pirate whaling’ (whale poaching) all over the world.

    Today, Japan annually kills endangered sei whales, endangered fin whales, vulnerable sperm whales, rare Bryde’s whales, common minke whales (many from the vulnerable J-stock), and Antarctic minke whales (another species in decline). Not to mention up to 20,000 small cetaceans like dolphins, including rare beaked whales and a Dall’s porpoise slaughter considered ‘clearly unsustainable’ by the IWC scientific committee.

    Nations all over the world (not just the USA and Australia) have publicly condemned Japan’s ongoing whale poaching in the Southern Ocean and elsewhere — including Taiji.

    However, Taiji and all of Japan would do well to cease eating whale meat in general — particularly dolphin meat which has been consistently shown to be contaminated with levels of mercury, PCBs, and other toxic chemicals and metals making the animals unsafe for human consumption.

    The whalers would like to pretend that whaling is done for ‘tradition’ — as if every person in Japan is descended from whale hunters — rather than profit for a select few corrupt officials and their business cronies. The whalers would also like to pretend that activists are somehow unfairly singling-out Japan for protest despite the many campaigns against other whaling nations. In reality, the subversion of international whaling regulations by the Japanese government at the expense of the Japanese taxpayer is almost as morally indefensible as the cruel destruction of dolphins in places like Taiji.

    • Therese

      Whilst I am sure you have done a lot of research, it most Japanese did not eat whale meat then why is it so readily available in supermarkets?

      • AnimuX

        The government of Japan has a stockpile of thousands of tons of whale meat in cold storage that goes unsold. As mentioned in my first response the ICR was unable to sell 75% of its catch just last year. In order to compensate the government also includes whale meat in compulsory school lunches.

        Outside of selling to a number of commercial distributors the government of Japan has also attempted to make direct sales to people — including a 2010 incident of mass food poisoning in Oshika.

        A 2006 survey by the Nippon Research Centre found that 95% of Japanese people never or rarely eat whale meat.

        In a more recent survey 88.8% of those polled had not bought whale meat in the past 12 months.

        The only reason it is available in supermarkets is the government of Japan props up the whaling industry with as much as $10 million a year in tax funded subsidies.

      • Diego Doo

        It’s not true that whale meat is available in supermarkets. Been living in Japan for a decade and we’ve never seem it. Supermarkets don’t sell whale meat.

  • Electra CV

    Saying something is part of one’s culture doesn’t necessarily make it right, neither does it shield it from criticism. If the japanese people were so keen on preserving this tradition then the declining populations would be a source of concern just as it is for the Inuit (who btw nobody accuses of killing off whales because each community will kill one whale per year at best). The sad truth is that whaling has become a matter of pride and admitting as much would be nice.

    • Good point after all some tribes could claim that eating humans is ‘tradition’ but we would not tolerate that in this day and age

  • Donna Wright

    Why does the killing of whales still continue when the stockpiles are so huge ?I thought they were caught for research ?The annual Taiji massacre of dolphins and Pilot Whales is purely a money making exercise,tradition no longer comes into it.Under the guise of ”tradition” the Taiji Fishermans Union makes millions of dollars every year selling these dolphins into captivity all over the world.The dolphins not up to standard are murdered and along with pilot whale meat are sold for consumption.Even though the meat of these animals is known to be dangerously laden with mercury.Does Kazuaki Otsuji really believe that we should be happy we don’t actually see the metal/wooden poles being driven through the dolphins/whales blowholes.We still hear their screams and see the water turn red then the bodies being transported to the butcherhouse.The killing of these beautiful animals has to stop both in Japan and in the Southern Ocean

  • kg

    The vast amounts of money received from the captive dolphin industry has not been mentioned once in this article. I’m sure taking dolphins from their families, having them watch the rest of their pod murdered to be stockpiled in freezers and putting them in concrete tanks is not to do with tradition? The dolphin and whale industry is for the greedy few. The way these intelligent beings are treated is disgusting. There is no point mentioning the particulars here though, everybody that cares about oceans, our planet and its intelligent inhabitants knows the truth.

  • ndbridge

    Many traditions have been abandoned over the years by people who had the intelligence to realize their practices were wrong and no longer necessary.

    Japan is a thriving country and has many resources they don’t need to eat whales or kill dolphins. I would also really appreciate it if the Japanese fishermen would make up their mind.
    One minute their practice whale and dolphin hunts because its tradition the next they say they do it because dolphins and whales are eating too many fish in the ocean and they are performing “pest control” by hunting them.

    • Michael D’Andrea

      The problem is Japanese mismanagement of domestic fisheries (overfishing), not dolphins overeating. Ignoring problems like this don’t make them go away and this one has arrived home to roost.

  • gingersstuff

    The other commenters here, particularly AnimuX, have expressed my opinion more eloquently than I could have. The fact that Japan continues to defy international opinion (and I am from Scotland, so no, not just the USA and Australia that rail against this and I believe that actually 18 governments have officially complained to Japan about their continuing heinous practices in killing cetaceans) is a source of great disgust to most decent people. This has nothing to do with tradition and everything to do with money, greed and spite. Why no mention of the multi-million dollar captive dolphin industry that Taiji is the heart of? That the young, pretty dolphins are ripped from their families and forced to watch them slaughtered before they are shipped around the world to spend the rest of their lives in a concrete prison? This, along with the hunting of the great whales and illegal poaching in the Southern Oceans Whale Sanctuary propped up by the Japanese taxpayer because the whaling industry runs at a massive loss, brings shame on Japan. There is no place in the 21st century for such barbaric practices. The last line of the article mentions that that anti-whaling industry has become a money-collecting business…but collecting money from people like myself who are more than happy to see their hard-earned cash spent on protecting these animals from being needlessly slaughtered, all in the name of one country’s pride.

  • wadegonsoulin@yahoo.com

    AnimuX, beautifully said! THANK YOU!

    I think the most ugent issue here is simply that these creatures are just too intelligent and self-aware to be hunted at all. As much as we like to pride ourselves for our cognitive abilities, people need to realize that ceteceans are a very close second to humans in this regard. They think, feel and mourn the loss of their loved ones in much the same way we do.
    Not that any living thing should be tortured, but these beings especially deserve to be viewed as equal to us, and killing them must be considered no less than capital murder. We are NOT the only minds on the planet.

  • This article is nothing but a disingenuous piece of PR for a government financed industry. At the first step, the author destroys his credibility and throws away his integrity.

    The business in Taiji is about about dancing dolphins for the captive animal entertainment industry and has nothing to do with Japanese culture. It is, of course, part of American popular culture and many of the animals are taken for the export market.

    It clearly has nothing to do with “cultural heritage” nor “food resource diversity”.

    Examining the article, it contains just about every well worn meme and manipulation the ICR routinely rolls out whilst ignoring the most obvious and pertinent … it’s all about the money but not in the obvious manner of making profits from one’s industry. The industry is unprofitable and dying, sustained only by subsidies, one part of a industry, fisheries in Japan, that is out of control and heading towards disaster due to its own lack of self-control.

    Where should we be looking?

    • At the ironically name and conservative Liberal Democratic Party’s need to succour rural voters,

    • At MAFF’s or more specifically the ICR’s needs to sustain its budgets and tax subsidies, and

    • To the comforts junkets and indulgences afforded to the little band of paid for “experts” who recycle its PR in an attempt to set public opinion.

    Their gaol, a rear guard defence against the inevitable rise of ethics and morality of modernity which aims to trade Norwegian style whaling in the Antarctic in order to be allowed to slaughter whales in the Japan Sea.

    Animal welfare, animal rights and environmental conservation are dismissed as “merely money making rackets” to a society which really does not yet fully understand independent NGO lobbying and a political elite which has no intention of allowing them ground within what they see as their feudal domain.

    What is remarkable about this self-interested and destructive coterie is that they employ the services of Western spin doctors to dress up their old arguments in borrowed buzz words like “diversity” which they think will appeal to, or confuse, the general public and foreigners.

    What is of such great value in adding one more species of mammals to a few old businessmen’s dinner plate when it costs so much in non-renewable resources? Surely financial and environmental sustainability should come higher?

    Why the need for rare and luxury meat products at such an expensive price when vegetable sources of protein have been shown to be perfectly adequate for all ages of human development?

    What’s it really all about?

    What it’s really all about is a callous bunch of old cronies with their hands stretched out saying, “what about us?” when it comes to distributing our tax subsidies without a thought about the full cost or impact of their activities of future sustainability.

  • Karl Malloy

    People have no clue how the Japanese view this. Imagine if a group of Hindus came to the United States and started protesting cow slaughter. “They are much too beautiful and sacred animals to be eaten.” Think about how absolutely crazy that would seem to everyone in the US, and then you might realize how the Japanese view our take on killing these marine mammals. If you can get some perspective on the issue you start to see how odd it is to try to tell other cultures how to conduct their business in regards to other species.

    Here’s an excerpt from the book “Modern Japanese Culture” which helps explain the animist view held by most Japanese:
    (from pp. 303-305):
    While recognizing the importance of preserving animal resources, a majority of the Japanese find it difficult to comprehend the argument, frequently advanced in Western countries, that whales should be given special protection because their intelligence level is close to that of human beings. The animistic perspective long embedded into the Japanese psyche regards every being, including plants and minerals, as having a life of its own. This worldview has been combined with the Buddhist thinking that human and animal lives are on equal footing: human beings live depending on the lives of other beings. In the endless cycle of some animal beings eating others, some lives are maintained at the expense of others.

  • Jane Cartney

    There are simply no justifiable excuses for continuing with these actions which are ethically and morally repugnant.

    If the government were to acknowledge and put an end to
    ‘amakudari’, the corruption at the heart of this disgraceful scenario, as described by Morikawa, the way would be open to end dolphin and porpoise slaughter, and Japanese whaling across the world’s oceans.