Dolphin slaughter at Taiji, as recorded in The Cove
I hardly need to say it, but I like Japan and I like the Japanese. The country and its people have been very good to me, and I’ve had some of the happiest times of my life there. But if there’s this one niggling side to the place that does bother me, it’s this apparent lack of awareness of how people in other countries feel about certain issues. If the whole world were a big party, I sometimes feel Japan would be off having a cigarette in the garden, alone by itself, rather than chatting with everyone else in the living room. I can’t really think of a better example than its adherence to whaling.
Of course, merely criticising Japan for its past or present actions isn’t very constructive, but what is frustrating is, on a national level, its refusal to even join the debate with other countries, and also just how plain ignorant many people are about certain things. I know I got into hot water once myself by raising this thorny issue while teaching in Japan, after a thirty-something Office Lady asked me if we ate whales in Britain, necessitating my explaining that Japan was one of the few countries in the world that ignored the global moratorium on commercial whaling. I was then asked by another student why Britain and America always thought they had the right to criticise Japan about everything. I hardly was in a position myself to take the moral high-ground at this point. After all, the whole reason the topic was raised was that I had actually sampled my first bit of whale meat in an izakaya the night before, as I duly explained to the student. There’s debates to be had about the pros and cons of whaling, but what most amazed me was that this particular individual was completely unaware of Japan’s unique position (well, along with Iceland and Norway) of going against the tide of global opinion. You’d have thought the country would be better off just going with the flow to save them the bother. After all, as I can safely vouch, whale meat really isn’t that great.
As one interviewee puts it in The Cove, a startling new documentary directed by Louie Psihoyos, as a major economic power that once harboured imperial ambitions of its own, Japan really doesn’t like being told what to do by the bullying global powers of America and Britain. The Cove has a lot of other interesting things to say too, the most evident being that Japan’s opt out of the global moratorium – insisting it only catches whales for purposes of “scientific research” – also permits the slaughter of 23,000 dolphins a year. The average Japanese does not know this. I didn’t either, and I thank the film for telling me. I am not sure what sort of distribution Psihoyos’ film will get in Japan, but I think a lot of people might be happy to hear about this. Naturally this is a sensitive subject, and the film courts some accusations of Japan-bashing. I see a number of one-line synopses proliferating across the media that describe it as a “documentary exposing the Japanese dolphin trade”. Well, this isn’t entirely accurate. At an early stage the film makes clear the complicity of the rest of the world in this live dolphin industry. Those performing dolphins you see in sea-life centres across the globe have to come from somewhere, and the fishermen of the town of Taiji, the town whose secret cove acts as the venue for this mass slaughter, get a hefty enough sum for each live specimen for them not to want to relinquish this cash cow. I guess the vast majority of the other dolphins that get butchered in the process might be considered collateral damage.
They might be considered the lucky ones, as it’s fairly obvious the dolphins don’t really take to a life in captivity. Ric O’Barry, the documentary’s central character, knows this better than most: he’s the man who trained TV’s first dolphin star, Flipper (real name, Kathy), and also the man who cradled the famous female bottlenose in his arms as she died, apparently by holding her breath underwater to commit suicide. Dolphins are intelligent creatures that migrate over huge distances, so life in a swimming pool balancing beach balls on their noses is clearly a pretty depressing existence for them. It’s this awareness that led to O’Barry’s campaign to free all captive dolphins through the Dolphin Project, founded in 1970.
The Cove, which follows O’Barry and his crew’s attempts to document one of the regular dolphin slaughters that take place in Taiji, is both gripping (reviews have checklisted Ocean’s Eleven, and the documentary Man on Wire) and incredibly disturbing – I wept as the cove’s waters churned with the blood of the thrashing dolphins aware of their impending doom. What is perhaps most depressing is how needless the carnage is. While dolphin meat is made available for sale in Japan, it’s seldom labelled as being what it is, and the consumer demand is low enough for it to be a non-profitable industry. Apparently, the justification of the cull is not economic or scientific, nor even connected with abstract notions of “tradition”, but because dolphins are considered “pests”, held responsible for the declining fish stocks around Japan. Moreover, the film highlights that the meat of all sea creatures higher up the food chain, not just whales and dolphins but tuna and sea bass too, contains dangerously high levels of mercury, and those familiar with Japanese documentary history will no doubt be aware of Noriaki Tsuchimoto’s documentaries in the 1960s exposing what is now known as Minamata Disease, named after the town whose inhabitants fell prey to mercury poisoning due to industrial polution. If you don’t, you might want to take a look at this.
The Cove opened in the UK this weekend, and it is certainly among the most impressive documentaries I’ve seen this year. The ending, in which O’Barry alerts the various members of the International Whaling Commission to what is truly going on in Taiji, is as exhilarating as the scene at the end of Tokachi Tsuchiya’s A Normal Life Please, in which the members of the truck haulage union project their images of foul play on a large sheet outside the cement company’s headquarters. If nothing, these films show that documentaries do have the potential to change things (and in fact, The Cove is also reminiscent of another recent film about mankind’s abuse of the oceans, The End of the Line, which led to several UK sandwich chains rightly removing tuna from their menus). As O’Barry says at the end of the film, he could either be an activist or an in-activist, and we should be thankful that there are people like him who have chosen the former camp. Or to quote from the song Psyche by the mighty Killing Joke, ‘Dodge the bullet or carry the gun. The choice is yours.’
To find out what you can do to alleviate the burden on the planet’s fragile ocean ecosystems, check out the website here.