Film on the Dolphin Hunt Stirs Outrage in Japan

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Film on the Dolphin Hunt Stirs Outrage in Japan

[Ed. Note: For more information, read Bad News at The Cove - Taiji Dolphin Hunt Begins.]

By Hiroko Tabuchi, Yasuko Kamiizumi, Ayasa Aizawa on NYTimes.com
November 2009

For years, dolphin hunts off the seaside town of Taiji, which turn coastal waters red with blood each winter, have drawn the ire of Western activists. But few among the Japanese public seemed to care, or even know, about the slaughter.

That could change with the first public screenings here of “The Cove,” an American documentary that used hidden cameras to film Taiji’s annual dolphin hunts. On Wednesday, Japanese moviegoers got their first glimpse of it at the Tokyo International Film Festival, held here this week.

Taiji is not the only community that hunts dolphins, thousands of which are killed across the world either by intent or by becoming ensnared in fishermen’s nets. But Taiji’s fishermen are notorious drive hunters, banging on metal poles to herd panicked dolphins into a cove, then spearing them to death in what protesters describe as a gory bloodbath.

Japan killed about 13,000 dolphins in coastal waters in 2007, according to the fisheries agency, of which about 1,750 were captured in Taiji. Japan also hunts whales by using a loophole in the 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling that allows whales to be killed for research, though the catch from its research fleet ends up in Japanese supermarkets.

“I was outraged. The footage of the sea turning bloody red was especially shocking,” said Yukiko Ishizawa, 18, a college student in Tokyo who saw the film on Wednesday.

“I’d seen the meat sold on the market, but had no idea Japan was a big dolphin-hunting nation,” said Taro Oguchi, 29, an office worker. “Whether or not Japan should stop is one thing,” he said. “But we should at least be aware these hunts take place.”

Despite the film’s enthusiastic reception at the festival — a round of applause broke out at the end of the film — it is unclear whether it will spark a wider public debate. Whale and dolphin hunting is considered an important part of Japan’s traditional livelihood and culinary culture, a practice to be defended against foreign interference — even though only a minority of Japanese eat whale meat, and even fewer eat dolphin.

There is also a strong taboo in the Japanese news media against any criticism of the country’s farmers and fishermen, often depicted as heroic defenders of a way of life that is fast disappearing. Coverage of the film has been sparse, and its producers have yet to find a distributor willing to put it on wider release.

The Tokyo Film Festival initially rejected “The Cove” as too controversial, but reversed its decision at the last minute after lobbying from Hollywood heavyweights like Ben Stiller, who has taken a personal interest in it. The festival, however, screened a disclaimer stating it had nothing to do with the film’s production.

“The feeling here is that the world needs to respect cultural differences,” said Testsu Sato, a professor in environmental management at Nagano University. “Why should there even be a debate on this issue?”

The fishing cooperative at Taiji had demanded that the festival drop “The Cove” from its program, accusing producers of trespassing on private property to film footage and of making false assertions. The town has hired a lawyer and was preparing to take legal action, an official said Wednesday. The lawyer, Shozaburo Ishida, did not return repeated requests for comment.

Meanwhile, the dolphin hunts will continue as planned through the season that runs from September through February, Japan’s fisheries agency said Wednesday. At their first hunt in September, Taiji fishermen captured 10 bottle-nosed dolphins out of a pod of about 100 to ship live to aquariums, while about 50 pilot whales were killed and sent to market.

Taiji’s mayor, Kazutaka Sangen, has advised fishermen to carve up whales and dolphins in indoor facilities so as not to provoke activists further, according to the newspaper Yomiuri.

Still, the film’s makers called Wednesday’s screening a coup, and a first step toward raising awareness of the hunts among the Japanese public. The crew, which included a pair of free divers and a “clandestine operations” organizer, used fake rocks to hide the cameras and microphones off Taiji’s coast.

“The secret is out,” the director, Louie Psihoyos, said Wednesday. “The reaction was amazing. People came up to me to ask how they could help.”

Mr. Psihoyos has said that he would give Taiji the profits from any further screenings in Japan if it ends the hunts and switches to whale-watching or other businesses.

The switch will not be easy in Taiji, where dolphin meat accounts for a third of the town’s roughly $3 million annual fishing industry. The people of Taiji have hunted coastal whales for 400 years, according to the local whaling museum, and the town’s men serve as harpooners and sailors aboard Japan’s whaling fleet. Dolphin meat is a local delicacy, served raw as sashimi or boiled with soy sauce.

In recent years, however, the town has become increasingly divided on dolphin hunting. Laboratory tests have shown high levels of mercury in the flesh of dolphins and pilot whales that were caught and sold in Taiji, prompting some local markets to remove them from their shelves.

But even those findings have not been widely reported in the national media. Many in the film audience were shocked to learn about high mercury readings in dolphin meat.

“I’m never going to eat dolphin again now that I know about the pollution,” said Mutsuko Otake, 55, a Tokyo homemaker.

“But I was most shocked to find out that Japan has been getting a bad name, without us knowing about it,” she added.