It has been seven years since the Oscar-winning documentary The Cove thrust a Japanese town’s annual dolphin hunt into the spotlight and brought international condemnation. Now fishermen from the town of Taiji are speaking to the Western media about how they feel they have been wrongly portrayed.
Their voices are emerging just as the usual battle lines are being drawn this week at the International Whaling Commission as it stages its biennial commission meeting in Portoroz, Slovenia.
As the world marks the 70th anniversary of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling and the 30th anniversary of the global ban on commercial whaling, there are nations that fiercely oppose any changes to these agreements, and there are those wanting a relaxation of the rules.
The IWC meetings attract intense interest from environmentalists, not least for the broader conflict with Japan. Despite the ban on commercial whaling, Japan continued what it called a “scientific” whale hunt. It then lost a ruling on the issue at the International Court of Justice in 2014, but continued its hunt this year on a reduced scale only to face renewed criticism.
Dolphins also fall under the IWC mandate, which is where Taiji Mayor Kazutaka Sangen and the fishermen of Taiji, Wakayama prefecture, come into the equation.
There’s a delegation from the coastal Japanese town in Slovenia this week, as they face continued pressure from environmental groups such as Dolphin Project and Earth Island Institute to end an annual dolphin kill the fishermen say is part of a 400-year-old unique culture.
Taiji gained global notoriety in 2009 when The Cove documentary caused a sensation with its footage of the slaughter of the dolphins after they are driven close to the shore and the sea turns red with their blood.
We don’t necessarily want people to agree with what we do. We just want them to hear our voice
— Kazutaka Sangen
But the fishermen remained quiet, even as the film was criticized in some quarters for the singular way in which they were cast.
Seven years later, though, and Taiji mayor Sangen and the fishermen are speaking to the western media about the impact The Cove had, and about how they feel they have been wrongly portrayed.
They realize the weight of public opinion — internationally at least — might be against them, but they want to have their say.
“We don’t necessarily want people to agree with what we do,” Sangen said. “We just want them to hear our voice. Kids in Taiji grow up wanting to be a hunter, a whaler. We never imagined growing up this way was a bad thing.
“But in today’s world we realize showing the slaughtering of any animals is a bad thing. That’s why you never see the slaughter of cows or chickens. We’ve learned and we are trying to understand people’s sensitivities. We are an isolated area and this change in thinking hadn’t reached us until recently. So maybe The Cove was a wake-up call.”
Sangen was among a delegation from Taiji that traveled to the 21st Busan International Film Festival earlier this month, there for the world premiere of A Whale Of A Tale, which featured in the event’s main documentary competition.
Its director — New York-based Japanese filmmaker Megumi Sasaki who was behind the movie titled Herb And Dorothy on art collectors — said she had seen The Cove, and had thought there was more to the story.
“It’s such a powerful film I knew it would affect world views,” said Sasaki. “I totally understand where The Cove comes from, but the world should know there is another voice.
“There was no voice, no information about this rich culture. I knew it was such a touchy and sensitive subject, but I was really frustrated about why nobody on the Japanese side spoke up.”
Sasaki makes considerable effort throughout her film to present both sides of the story, but what becomes increasingly apparent is that while there are rational arguments presented from both sides, there’s no common ground found for discussion.
“I didn’t want to impose my ideas,” she said. “I wanted to present both sides and let the audience think and feel and decide. It’s a very complicated issue. Not accepting another point of view is a dangerous thing, and it’s happening all over the world at the moment. We have to coexist.”
Yoshiharu Kai, head of the Taiji Fishermen’s Union, was also in Busan and has since traveled on to the IWC gathering in Slovenia.
He said the relatively small annual kill — 2,000 dolphins out of the 20,000 allowed annually under Japanese law — and the fact none of the species targeted were on endangered or threatened lists meant the practice was sustainable. More so, they were part of the fabric of Taiji society.
“This is our culture,” said Kai. “We want people to appreciate this and to listen to our side of this story.”