For the first time, a Japanese newspaper has denounced the slaughter of dolphins in the cove at Taiji, a move that has heartened activists and put the Japanese government on notice that the tides may be changing within the country.
On Friday, The Japan Times, the country’s oldest and largest English-language newspaper, ran an editorial that stated, simply, “The dolphin hunt is an inhumane practice that should be stopped.”
The editorial breathed new life into the controversy over the Taiji slaughter, in which roughly 900 dolphins are killed annually in the tiny fishing village, and it led activists to declare a small but significant victory.
“It surprised me,” says Ric O’Barry of Earth Island Institute’s Dolphin Project and star of the Academy Award–winning documentary The Cove.
In 2005, four years before that film drew international media attention to the hunt, O’Barry and activists from Elsa Nature Conservancy (Japan’s oldest environmental group) visited with journalists from some of the country's newspapers, television channels, and radio stations. “We spent a couple of days giving them packages of information that the dolphin meat is contaminated with high levels of mercury and PCBs,” says O’Barry. But the journalists said their editors would likely "kill the story” for fear their publishers, who often work closely with government officials, would object. None of the outlets O'Barry met with published an anti-hunt op-ed.
The Japan Times editorial pulls no punches. “[The slaughter] is not for the faint of heart. Despite claims of humane killing methods, the video shows the fishermen hacking into the heads and backs of the panicked dolphins.”
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has defended the slaughter, and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga recently told reporters that dolphin “fishing” is “traditional” and “carried out appropriately in accordance with the law.”
Animal activists challenge such assertions.
“Their argument that the force of tradition justifies the herding, capturing, and slaughtering of dolphins is a flimsy one,” The Japan Times stated, adding that the drive didn’t become a large-scale industry until 1969, “so its roots are quite shallow.”
O’Barry notes that despite being published in English, Japan Times stories are frequently picked up by Japanese-language papers and monitored by government officials and supporters of the hunts.
“All Japanese activists will read it and be encouraged” by such high-profile opposition, says O’Barry. “Only the Japanese people can stop this,” he adds.
The Cove director Louie Psihoyos is negotiating with the film’s Japanese distributor to buy back the rights. If that happens, the documentary would be shown for free, with subtitles, on YouTube and on popular Japanese websites. “There are 127 million Japanese people who never saw The Cove. When you see the film, you get it,” says O’Barry.
The op-ed’s strongest passage makes the case that tradition is no excuse for exploitive brutality.
“Many past cultural practices, such as slavery, bordellos, and beheading were stopped for ethical reasons,” it stated. “Tradition and culture are forces that change in accordance with new scientific understanding and evolving ethical standards.”