The Cove, the award-winning documentary about covert dolphin hunting in Japan, makes its debut this week at the Tokyo International Film Festival. At a private screening I attended last night in Manhattan for Japanese filmakers, writers and environmental advocates (a gathering hosted by documentary film producer Kaoru Wang), one of the producers told us that she expects the film will trigger much controversy in Japan. Click here for the trailer.
Controversy over dolphin hunts in Japan is not new. Here's my story on the practice, "Uproar Over Dolphin Slaughter," which ran on Page One of the Hearst-owned San Francisco Examiner on Sunday, December 23, 1990. At the time, I was Hearst Newspapers' Asia bureau chief, based in Tokyo. [The Examiner is no longer owned by Hearst and stories published before 2005 are not accessible by link, so I've copied the article here from the tearsheet.] My piece, which I also produced for National Public Radio at the time, does not defend the practice but explains how villagers view the practices and why Japanese government subsidies had been encouraging the hunts. Here is that account, in full, with the original subtitles:
MIIRAKU, Goto Islands — Time moves slowly here; traditions die hard.
For as long as most villagers can remember, fishermen have been butchering dolphins on the sprawling white sands of the harbor.
In 1949, on a grassy hilltop above the beach, four fishermen erected a chest-high marble stump, a Shinto shrine to the souls of the dolphins they had slaughtered below.
Last month, after 582 dolphins died on the beach, a small ceremony was held at the shrine. A burnt candle still rests against the side facing the harbor. "The dolphins cry, you know, when you kill them," says villager Ichiro Itaya. "But it is us or it is them."
That last time the dolphins came to this secluded fishing village off the southern tip of Japan, some were tied with rope to immobilize their fins before slaughter; others were clubbed, then butchered.
Dozens were hoisted onto car roofs and driven home by villagers. Those thought to be ill were buried in a yard-deep trench on the beach. Children were warned not to walk there in bare feet "because they might get cut on the bones," said villager Toshii Awaii. But that last time the dolphins came to Miiraku, they also brought international controversy, shattering what had been for generations a gentle obscurity.
Even now, more than a month after the beaching, sharp criticism by British, American and Japanese conservationists about the incident continues, prompting some Japanese leaders to complain of renewed Japan-bashing.
British tabloids, one of which renamed Miiraku's harbor "Blood Lust Bay," continue to write about the dolphins. One London weekly accused villagers of being "barbarians" and "killers" who "eat the animal's heart raw...and use its dorsal fin as a sex potion, despite worldwide protests."
And since the incident, an embarrassed Japanese government—which awards bounties for dolphins hunted here—has been scrambling to explain what happened amid growing accusations of a cover-up.
Matter of Survival
For generations of villagers, hunting dolphins has been a matter of survival. During World War II and for years afterward, dolphins were food for Miiraku and other remote Goto Island villages on the East China Sea. "Food shortages from the war made it difficult," Itaya recalls. "Dolphins were our only source of protein." Now, Miiraku fishermen compete with the dolphins, and the mammals are no longer welcome. "No one hunts them anymore for food," says villager Awaii, 56, a fish buyer. "Now they are pests and will eat anything in sight. When dolphins come, you cannot fish if they are in the harbor." Even without the dolphins, fishing here is difficult. Before dawn at the local fish market, 65-year-old fish buyer Miyako Awanohara is bent over a pile of wriggling skipjack, wielding a bloody fish hook like a baton. She laments the village's shrinking supply of fish.
"The catch is half of what it used to be 20 years ago," she says, using her hook to separate fish by type into small piles. "The fish are smaller now, and thinner." Awanohara blames the weather. Deputy Mayor Yoshishige Yokoyama says Miiraku's simple skiffs and handmade nets have become obsolete, no match for the high-tech trawlers that sweep coastal waters with sonar and drift nets. Strict rules limiting territory now keep Miiraku's fishermen close to the shore; some fish cannot reproduce as fast as they are caught by offshore trawlers. Yokoyama says Miiraku, too, is getting smaller. More than 15,000 people lived here 15 years ago. Now, more than half of the town's 4,973 people are older than 40, about twice the national average, and 99.3 percent of village revenue is provided by the government. "It is not longer honorable to be a fisherman here," says 25-year-old delivery truck driver Iwasaki Katsumore, one fisherman's son who stayed behind. Says Yokoyama, "No one here is optimistic about the future."
Miiraku fishermen suspected there would be trouble the night of November 1.
For days, their handmade nets, positioned at the mouth of the harbor, had come up empty. A typical morning catch included several dozen squid and skipjack. Now there was almost nothing. The next day, as they headed back to port, the fishermen saw the reason. Fins, hundreds of them, were plying the waves off the harbor.
Fishermen's Cooperative Union representative Yasuhiko Kamakura says word traveled fast. Some fishermen took their boats out to the harbor. On the beach, a "dolphin union" organized years ago to distribute dolphin meat to the villagers, gathered on the beach to start digging a trench in the sand for the dolphins they saw in the harbor. "Fishermen were concerned about the damage to the nets," Kamakura recalled. "We tried to make them go away" from the area in the harbor where fishermen had set their nets. "Fishermen felt they must protect themselves," he said.
Scene of Slaughter
By morning, there were 582 dolphins on the beach—enough, Kamakura said, to make the mile-wide stretch of white sand look as if it were covered by black coats, laid arm-to-arm, as if out to dry. Over the next 24 hours, 90 dolphins were buried with earth-moving equipment, Kamakura said. Others were clubbed and slaughtered. Several hundred were sent home with villagers, some of whom transported whole dolphins tied to the roofs of their cars. "Some were still alive," Kamakura said. "If they cannot die themselves, we deal with them, and we may bury many of them." Once inside the harbor, he said, dolphins cannot be chased back to the ocean. The shoal is shallow and the dolphins "lose their navigational ability there." In the harbor, Kamakura says, the dolphins are as good as dead. Says fish buyer Awaii: "It is local custom. Nothing unusual happened here."
But how the dolphins got from the bay into the shallow shoal area of the harbor remains a mystery. Miiraku fishermen tell conflicting stories. Some says the dolphins were chased onto the shoal. Others say fishermen sought to chase them back toward the ocean. Still others, like Kamakura, say the dolphins scattered in both directions. For weeks, the Japanese government insisted the dolphins beached themselves, committing "mass suicide." Last week, Foreign Ministry spokesman Taizo Watanabe said some fishermen, in an effort to chase dolphins out of the bay, may have chased them into the harbor. Watanabe denies any "preconceived plot" to kill the dolphins.
Many remain dubious. Japan's leading news service, Kyodo Tsushin, sent a reporter from its Nagasaki bureau to cover the beaching and stands by its account that some fishermen attempted to chase dolphins into the harbor. Naoko Kakuta of Greenpeace-Japan says natural strandings of dolphins are rare. A beaching of one to four dolphins would not be unusual, she said.
"Hundreds of stranded ones like the 582 in this case would be very rare if it happened naturally," she says, adding that in this case, people were in the harbor, in boats, "chasing the dolphins around, so it is very difficult to see the situation as a totally natural stranding." Last week, Toru Ishihara, the former chief of the Goto Island Ocean Fisheries Control Committee, an arm of the Nagasaki prefectural government, said, "It is a fact that the fishermen drove the dolphins ashore...Unless we admit that and start explaining why hunting is necessary, we will be considered barbarians every time we hunt."
For the last three years, the Nagasaki prefectural government has been awarding Miiraku fishermen a bounty of $38 for each dolphin they hunt and slaughter. Masahiro Iwasaki, supervisor of the fisheries division of the Nagasaki prefectural government,s aid Miiraku fishermen seldom make claims. In 1989, the village received about $2,300 for hunting 60 dolphins. Before November's incident, authorities had awarded $923 dollars for 24 dolphins captured and killed in the village this year. Watanabe says Nagasaki officials have been advised against paying bounties to Miiraku for the November beaching, for fear that foreign critics "misunderstand" the intent of the bounty system, which is unique to Nagasaki prefecture in southern Japan. Iwasaki says bounties are awarded "to help protect the local Miiraku fisheries industry." Watanabe says that "if there is a real need for a bounty, it should be paid. but this time, there was such an international outcry against the dolphins...that concern about the image of the prefecture was taken into account."Kamakura said villagers sought $20,300 for the time and effort it took to "clean up the beach." Last week, the bounties were denied.
Too Many Dead
At Isekiji's tavern, a sake and yakotori bar on a hill above the Miiraku harbor, patrons say they don't understand why the beaching caused such an uproar. "It is strange that (the dolphins) should become a topic of discussion like this," says Itaya, who runs the bar with his wife, Misako.
From the shrine above the harbor, Kamakura voices similar thoughts to an American visitor. "Take a look," Kamakura advises. Against an afternoon sky, Miiraku glows pink and orange against the clouds and is awash with sound—the faint squeals of sea gulls and school children, the muted hum of voices, boat engines and small cargo hoists. "I want people to come up here and see for themselves that we are not what they call us in the foreign press," he says, squinting against a cold wind. "Six hundred dolphins is too many dead. We want them to sleep now, eternally, in peace."