Yesterday I saw the film The Cove on the first day of its Japan release. Good attendance at the cinema, a small police presence, no nationalist protesters that I could see and lots of TV and print journalists cadging reactions from departing film-goers.
In case you’ve missed the b(r)oohaha, The Cove is the Oscar-winning documentary about the ongoing dolphin slaughter at Taiji in Wakayama, Japan. Wakayama is just down the road from Osaka, so this is a local story that we’ve been following in Kansai Scene — and if it weren’t local I’d be following it anyway because it is an issue with global implications.
The dolphin slaughter kills about 1,500 cetaceans every year.
Taiji the town has a thriving tourist trade built partially on its connections with whales and dolphins but never mentions the slaughter, which is conducted out of sight and in secret. Most Japanese people are unaware that this slaughter is happening as there is a near media black out on the issue. The media blackout comes from the appalling collusion through commercial interests between corporate and institutional Japan and the private media, which constitutes a de facto censorship system.
The Taiji fishermen will round up hundreds of dolphins and herd them into a particular cove. Tourists will gather to watch the spectacle of the cute animals being brought together and see buyers from aquariums and film studios choosing the animals to be shipped alive to the US, Europe, etc. The remaining dolphins and pilot whales are then herded into another cove out of sight of tourists or media and speared to death. Their meat is sold and any unwanted carcasses are dumped offshore. The meat of dolphins is highly toxic, another point of potential interest to the Japanese people that is kept from them. Being on top of the food chain, mercury accumulates in the body of dolphins. The concentrations of mercury are unsafe for humans and a threat to the health of the animals. The mercury comes from human industrial activities and leads to a crippling and fatal condition known as Minamata disease.
The dolphin meat is re-labelled as whale meat and sold to unsuspecting customers in supermarkets. The mayor of Taiji has been donating free dolphin meat to schools up and down the country as a PR stunt, ensuring that children everywhere are getting a good dose of heavy metals in their lunch.
Film crews and anyone investigating the slaughter in Taiji are blocked, harassed, threatened and intimidated by the fishermen, suspected rightist/yakuza members, the local authorities and the police. Protesters and activists have expressed a fear for their lives. The makers of The Cove went to extraordinary lengths to secretly film the killing.
The film was released last year in the free world but has only just been made available in Japan. With the news of its release here, nationalist groups and pro-whaling activists sent threats to and picketed the domestic distributors and cinemas wanting to show the film. Most cinemas gave up the idea of showing the film and it was only after the official release date had passed without any cinemas carrying the movie that a judge in Yokohama stepped in to grant an injunction against the goons to stop them picketing theatres. This weekend a whopping six cinemas across the country and only one in Osaka are braving the threats.
The Osaka cinema is in a district called Juso, which is well known for its local, er, colour, and community of yakuza and right-wing morons, so I was wondering whether there would be any pickets or protests. There were none that I could see, but lots of media interest.
The story of the slaughter and of the cover up highlights all sorts of issues, from the ethics of killing, to collusion between government and industry, to free speech, and to the (in)effectiveness of International Whaling Commission, making The Cove a must-see event.
I must warn that anyone in an emotionally vulnerable state is in for a rough ride and the footage of the slaughter is harrowing.
As a documentary, I wonder whether we needed all the cloak and dagger stuff about how the film was actually made, but if it brings in the punters and helps to provoke a debate on the issues, who cares?
Defenders of this slaughter and whaling in general defend their practices in all sorts of ways.
It’s tradition, they say. Bollocks. Traditions change, a process known as progress. Once upon a time it was tradition in Japan to practice euthanasia by dumping old and infirm people on mountains. I wonder if the whalers would like to go back to that. Perhaps they’d like to give up the internal combustion engines on their boats and electricity in their homes. The killing is about money and nationalism. It has nothing to do with tradition or survival or anything else. The fishermen of Taiji get $150,000 for a live dolphin sold to an aquarium and $600 dollars for the meat of a dead one. One thousand five hundred cetaceans are killed in Taiji every year. You do the maths.
It is also a matter of raw, fascist nationalism. The chumps who hunt the whales and dolphins and the national institutions that protect the practice are basically saying ‘fuck off foreigners’. I am not exaggerating. They see foreign interference in all walks of Japanese life, and the issue of cetaceans has become symbolic, a fact that the rest of the world has failed to grasp, and which is probably (and properly) beyond the comprehension of most rational minds. In Britain we have the paranoid imbeciles of UKIP, the BNP and the Countryside Alliance barking at every noise from Brussels (but not Washington, you hypocrites). In Japan we have the whalers and their rightist pals barking at every noise from the rest of the world and every living thng in the ocean.
I would like to point out that the dolphin killing is not a local or national issue. The natural world is of importance and relevance to everyone who lives in it, not just the people who happen to live next door to a particular bit of it.
The authorities also say that killing dolphins is “pest control”. Their words, not mine. Wonderful footage of the response of delegates at the IWC to Japan’s presentation of the same point to justify whaling. “It’s impossible to take that presentation seriously,” said one bewildered Australian. “Without a shred of scientific credibility”, said another chap.
The local authority spokesman said that dolphin meat may be toxic, but it was legally toxic and anyway contained some useful nutrients. Bananas have useful nutrients, why do we need dolphin vitamins?
Westerners eat cows, what’s the beef about eating cetaceans? Well, not all westerners eat meat, and there is a vigorous debate in the real world about the ethics of raising, butchering and eating animals of all kinds.
The ethical issue, is indeed engaging. What is the difference between eating cow and dolphin? Many anti-whalers and opponents of dolphin slaughter cite the intelligence of cetaceans as reason for not killing them. Despite the obvious intuitive appeal of this argument, it does not work for many reasons. How do you gauge animal intelligence without being anthropocentric and where, anyway, would you draw the line between dumb enough to kill and smart enough to live? IQ tests in the lobby of the abattoir, anyone? Having said that, the compelling part of the intelligence argument is that you can apply it to humans, thus allowing the cow to butcher the butcher, or chickens to slaughter the fishermen of Taiji.
If we swap the word ‘intelligence’ for ‘sentience’, we have a more compelling argument. We generally don’t kill other people (well, we do, but you know what I mean) and we refrain partly out of a sense of enlightened self interest. We also refrain through empathy; we are aware that other people are self-aware. (Note how in times of war propaganda will try to dehumanize the enemy to make killing palatable.) Dolphins are sentient. Even by the standards of any anthropocentric test, they are self-aware. A friend yesterday made me aware of the useful and exciting distinction between run-o-the-mill sentience and sentient sentience; sapiens sapiens as opposed to just sapiens. In other words the awareness of being aware, or in yet more other words, the ability for reflective, creative thought. Dolphins are without doubt sapiens sapiens. I find it hard to justify the killing of any sentient creature (and there are good arguments for not killing non-sentient ones) and impossible to justify killing reflectively aware creatures.
I would like to add as an aside that hundreds of species are ‘demonstrably’ sentient, including most or all cetaceans and primates, and common sense tells me that sentience is the norm rather than the exception in the animal world, contrary to traditional assumptions.
If anyone out there can justify killing sentient creatures, especially sentiently sentient ones, I would like to hear from you because that is an urgent debate I would like to engage with.
As for the response of Japanese people to this film. So far it seems to be: we didn’t know about the slaughter of the dolphins, that we were being sold toxic meat and both have got to stop, but what are you foreigners doing coming here and telling us things about ourselves we didn’t know? I believe there has been some mockery of the film’s dramatic presentation of getting the footage (commando-style ops with camouflage and wotsit heat seeking camera things).
Next, there is talk of celebrity campaigners from Hollywood descending on Taiji this September to protest the slaughter (the fisherfolk might usefully turn their harpoons on them).
The town of Iki was once notorious for killing cetaceans in a similar manner and they stopped — but only when they ran out of dolphins to kill. I hope and believe the slaughter at Taiji will stop before we get to that point and this film will be part of the process of progress.
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