Commentary / World

The fate of a dolphin activist in Japan’s flawed democracy

by Nancy Snow

Special To The Japan Times

What do dolphins, David Bowie and The Economist have in common? Freedom. Dolphins seek freedom. Bowie, who loved Japan and Japan loved him, represents the freedom to express yourself. Bowie gave permission for his song “Heroes” to be used in the Oscar-winning documentary “The Cove,” about the dolphin hunt in Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture.

The Economist is in search of more freedom, especially in Japan’s political landscape. The Economist Democracy Index 2015 demoted Japan from a full democracy to a flawed democracy, along with Costa Rica, South Korea and France. The report from the Economist Intelligence Institute cites “Japan’s increasing media censorship” since the State Secrets Law went into effect December 2014 and “evidence of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) pressuring firms to withhold advertising in unfavored publications, were enough to push the country’s score below the 8.00 threshold, meaning that the country is now classified in our Democracy Index as a ‘flawed democracy.’ “

British understatement represents this media censorship as rationale for Japan’s democracy decline. The Japanese government seems at times afraid of its own global relations shadow, or the shadow of any dissenting point of view.

Take the case of 76-year-old dolphin activist, Ric O’Barry, star of “The Cove.” He is now starring in another real time documentary after landing at Tokyo’s Narita airport on Jan. 18. The Japanese Ministry of Justice filed an order for his deportation on Jan. 21, the same day that the Democracy Index 2015 was released. The charges against O’Barry involve falsely representing the purpose of his visit. His son, Lincoln O’Barry, states his father’s purpose quite clearly: “He has been working for 13 years to expose the brutal dolphin hunt there, and this is their latest attempt to shut him out.”

The government of Japan has a right to deny entry to anyone it wishes. And the government of Japan can build its deportation case against O’Barry, who at some point will be ordered out of Japan. We all are guests at the invitation of the host country and our stay as guests is a privilege, not a right. But lost in this process is an opportunity for greater understanding.

The global press and social media echo chamber leads with headlines like this: “Japan to Dolphin Activist: Get Out” and “Flipper Trainer Detained in Japan.” Viral petitions are circulating for O’Barry’s release. While there is plenty of sympathy for O’Barry’s detainment, there is little sympathy for the Japanese government, even if O’Barry misrepresented the purpose of his visit. His tourist habits suggest he wasn’t here for the Kyary Pamyu Pamyu attraction at Universal Cool Japan 2016.

Contrast the holding pattern of O’Barry to an open protest in another flawed democracy, France. The same week that O’Barry had the door to Japan’s democracy closed to him, the deputy minister of ecology Laurence Abeille welcomed animal rights activist and former “Baywatch babe” Pamela Anderson, who spoke in France’s National Assembly against the force-feeding of ducks and geese for the highly popular cuisine delicacy foie gras.

The Canadian-born celebrity Anderson took her inspiration to speak directly to the French government and its citizens from French actress Bridget Bardot, who came to Canada in the late 1970s to protest another Trudeau government and its slaughtering of baby seals. A pro foie-gras organization called Anderson’s visit a “publicity stunt” by “an American TV star from the eighties” who condemned “a jewel in the crown of gastronomy and French culture.”

True to that last point. Everything in this social media society is publicity-driven. That didn’t stop Anderson from accepting a government minister’s invitation to speak, making her point, and going home to her adopted home America. Conversely, it is hard to imagine a Japanese minister of anything extending an invitation to O’Barry to speak in the Diet.

Whatever the immigration outcome of O’Barry, he has already won in the courtroom of public opinion. Global public sympathy is on his side, whereas Japan looks overly sensitive on this contentious issue of dolphin hunting.

There is something that the government of Japan could do to even the playing field in making its case to the world. Don’t let O’Barry leave Japan without inviting him to a well-publicized debate at the University of Tokyo. Have him go up against the most seasoned advocates for continuing the dolphin hunt in Taiji. Invite the Japanese and foreign media to cover the debate gavel-to-gavel, and include live tweeting and a live stream version for the world to tune in. Add a focus group to the mix, consisting of pro- and anti- activists along with the undecided. Vote on a debate winner.

The winner would be democratic freedom of expression. It would show the world that Japan’s top-ranked institution of higher learning is not shy about debating one of the most contentious policies impacting Japan’s relations with the world. The event itself will not settle the debate about dolphins, but it might mute the growing chorus of people that views Japan as the democracy where dissent is in detention.

Nancy Snow is Pax Mundi Professor of Public Diplomacy at Kyoto University of Foreign Studies and adjunct fellow in the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies, Temple University Japan. Reach her at www.nancysnow.com.