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Taiji Dolphin Hunt Criticism Evolves Into Animal Rights Debate

A new wave of Japanese activism is using Taiji as a domestic beachhead for the burgeoning local animal rights and vegan movements. But this is far more controversial in a culture centered on fish consumption.

Jay Alabaster

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Inflatable dolphins doused with fake blood, laid out in front of the Eiffel tower. A rising sun flag dripping with red gore, pinned to the fence in front of Japan’s embassy in The Hague. Signs picturing bleeding dolphins trapped in nets, paraded in front of Japanese embassies in the United States.

Such are the scenes from around the world when dolphin hunting season begins each September in the Japanese whaling village of Taiji. 

The idea of hunting or capturing wild dolphins is a cultural taboo in much of the world, and for decades foreign activists have worked to end the Taiji hunts, especially since a scathing portrayal in the 2009 documentary “The Cove.” Campaigns such as the Cove Guardians, the Cove Monitors, Japan Dolphin Day, the Taiji Dolphin Action Group, and Save Japan Dolphins have raised awareness but done little to stop the hunts, which are legal in Japan, tightly regulated, and only allowed on species that exist in sufficient numbers to allow for sustainable catches.

On the ground in Taiji, however, the scene is different. At an annual march to protest the hunts that took place last week, the signs carried by Japanese activists had no bloody imagery, which are culturally abhorrent in the country. The placards carried by protestors featured images of dolphins, but also of fish, cows, and pigs. Messages such as “Free the dolphins” and “Let dolphins swim free” were interspersed with slogans such as “Love all animals,” “Eat vegan,” and “Fish feel pain too”. The Japanese groups that protest the hunts include Animal Rights Osaka, LIA (Life Investigation Agency), and Animal Liberation.

While international criticism against the Taiji dolphin hunts has long been focused on protecting a few distinct species of dolphins, a new wave of Japanese activism is using Taiji as a domestic beachhead for the burgeoning local animal rights and vegan movements.

This trend has accelerated over the last two years. Foreign activists, who had maintained an unbroken vigil over the hunts for over 10 years, documenting them and using the footage to dictate coverage on social media and the mainstream press, suddenly couldn’t travel abroad.

“The animal rights movement is still very small in Japan, but it is growing. For Taiji, several animal rights activists with strong followings on social media have been able to spread the message through their networks over the past few years. Because of the corona situation, there was much less influence from foreigners,” said one prominent Japanese activist.

One example is the American group that in recent years has taken the lead in anti-Taiji activism, Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project. Founded and led by a dolphin trainer turned dolphin activist who was a central character in “The Cove,” the group has stayed true to its name, focusing entirely on dolphin issues. A mainstay in its campaigning has been sending activists to Taiji to record and broadcast the dolphin hunts. Unable to do so during the epidemic, it teamed with Japanese group LIA, which has a much looser approach, engaging issues from puppy farms to homeless koalas to ivory sales.

LIA continued this tack in Taiji, broadcasting on social media about the dolphin hunts, but also about sea turtles, sharks, birds, and roadkill. 

Last season, Dolphin Project, dependent on LIA footage to maintain its Taiji campaign, was compelled to follow LIA’s lead in focusing on the plight of a minke whale caught in a local net. Whaling in Japan is a culturally sensitive topic that the dolphin-centric U.S. group has sought to avoid in the past, but the minke whale became the defining story of last year’s Taiji campaign.

Dolphin meat is a cultural staple in a handful of communities across Japan, but is not widely consumed in the country, so many Japanese are ambivalent about ending the Taiji hunts.

But tying the tiny town to wider issues such as veganism, followers of which abstain from consuming any animal products, is far more controversial, especially in a country that is among the world leaders in fish consumption per capita. This has led to accusations that Japanese activists are using the “brand” of Taiji to draw attention to issues outside of dolphin hunting.

“I am often asked why we focus on Taiji,” Ren Yabuki, the founder of LIA, told followers earlier this year. “It’s obvious – because people focus on the town, anyone should be able to see that. If a famous person says something and an unknown person says the same thing, of course more people will listen to the famous person.”

When protests were held in Taiji last week by Japanese activists, a group of nationalists also gathered in town, to demonstrate against what they feel is the unfair attention received by the town, even for issues unconnected to the local hunts.

“We have no problem if they protest against the government,” said one such nationalist, “but if they come and bother the locals we have to respond.”

Both sides brought dozens of supporters equipped with high-powered speakers, and engaged in a deafening debate during dual protest marches through the normally placid town. Activists beat amplified drums and chanted for veganism, while the nationalists blasted pro-whaling songs and shouted in response “Beef is so delicious! You should try fried chicken!”

Taiji sits on the southern tip of Japan’s main island of Honshu, jutting out into a major migration route for whales and other cetaceans, and has been a whaling outpost continuously for four centuries. Since international whaling bans went into effect in the 1980s, local fishermen have increasingly hunted smaller whales and dolphins, and are by now used to their quiet stone streets being enveloped in noisy arguments.

A dolphin fisherman, preparing his boat for the upcoming hunting season, rolled his eyes as the progression passed by. “Here we go again,” he said.

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Author: Jay Alabaster

Jay Alabaster is a PhD student at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism in Arizona State University. He currently lives in Taiji, Japan, where he is working on a book and his dissertation. You can find him on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/alabasterjay. His email is jay.alabaster(at)asu.edu.