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Dolphins captured for captivity in Taiji. Image: Hans Peter Roth

Loved and killed – whales and dolphins in Japan

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Taiji – an inflated symbol of perceived culture

I have the pleasure of introducing a guest blog by Kame-Kujira-Neko, a Japanese whale and dolphin advocate and author. Kame regularly blogs about whaling and dolphin hunting, mainly in Japanese. His novel “Whales Ocean” was published in Japan in 1995.

In Japan, “Alternative facts” about whaling are spreading.

There is no longer any reflection on the history of unsustainable catches and regulatory violations, and the Fisheries Agency is just promoting “Post-truth” whaling politics. In this situation, Taiji, the coastal town infamous for the dolphin drive hunts is playing a role as a symbol for the greatness of the Japanese whaling industry.

Although it is often introduced incorrectly in Japan and elsewhere, Taiji is not the birthplace of ancient whaling.

Organized whaling operations in Japan began about 400 years ago.

In Owari, which introduced the idea of whaling to Taiji, unsustainable catches had already destroyed the industry there.

Only the whale capture method using nets was developed in Taiji, when the whalers started going after humpbacks. At that time, up to 90 humpback whales or more were captured during “successful” whaling seasons in Taiji. It was an obvious overuse of the population of humpback whales in the Northwest Pacific.

But Taiji seemed to lack either the wisdom or the inclination to stop these unsustainable hunts.

The Ainu, the indigenous people in Hokkaido, also had a long history of whaling. They respected orcas as gods who shared their prey and their whaling was more sustainable than that of Taiji. However, when entering the Meiji era, the Ainu whaling itself was banned by the government for political reasons. Meanwhile, the chief of the Taiji whaling group had attempted to extend business to Hokkaido.

The Pre-modern whaling industry in Japan (before the 20th century) was just big business connected with administrational claims to power. Coastal fishermen could not fish and had financial difficulties because the whaling groups had occupied the fishing grounds.

Conflicts between whalers and fishermen have occurred frequently in the whaling areas for centuries. In the past, the whaling groups solved those problems with compensation payments instead of robbing fishermen of their livelihood as large corporations and the nuclear industry do it these days.

Taiji also has a history of supplying harpooners to major whaling companies and gained huge financial benefits in exchange for the devastation of whales in the Antarctic Ocean.

Many Japanese have an image of Taiji’s whaling as a rustic and innocent “traditional culture” by artisanal fishermen, but that is far from the truth.

Even further from the truth is that it is an aboriginal tradition, which it sometimes is claimed to be or compared to.

Before the end of the 1960s, dolphin hunting in Taiji had been conducted only very sporadically. The current form of the drive hunts began in 1969, and the technique was introduced from the Izu peninsula, where unsustainable hunting reduced the regional population of striped dolphins and is no longer carried out there. In Taiji, one cause of unsustainable hunting was competition among multiple hunting groups, which quickly increased catches to several hundreds of dolphins.

There are concerns that the catch quotas in Taiji, determined by the Fisheries Agency, might well exceed a correctly applied potential biological removal level (the maximum number of animals, not including natural deaths, that scientists believe may be removed from a marine mammal stock while allowing that stock to reach or maintain its optimum sustainable population) and thus is unsustainable

It can only be thought that this is a result of Taiji exerting strong political pressure.

Following international pressure resulting from documentation of the hunts, reports about the cruel killing method and as a result of pressure from the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA), aquarium members of the Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums (JAZA) stopped purchasing dolphins from Taiji in 2015.

Today, the revenue of the Taiji dolphin hunts largely depends on live captures for aquaria. The price of a bottlenose dolphin is about 9,000 dollars as a live capture, while it is about 200 dollars for the meat.

Furthermore, the Taiji Development Public Corporation purchases the dolphins from the fishermen’s cooperative and sells the trained individuals to aquaria for about 40,000 USD.

Although JAZA banned the purchase of dolphins from Taiji, non-JAZA members in Japan and aquaria in Korea, China and elsewhere continue to buy dolphins from Taiji. JAZA’s decision was not popular with the influential members of the National Diet (Japanese parliament) who act in the interest of the whaling industry. Taiji’s influence in parliament remains strong.

When speaking about the importance of culture and as the example of the pearl culture in Taiji shows, a lot of local traditional industries in Japan have actually been left to decline.

Pearl farming in Taiji had been thriving from the 1950s, earlier than the time when dolphin drive hunting was introduced.  However, pearl farming, which should have more weight than the dolphinaria industry as a traditional industry of Taiji, declined due to mainly economic factors, such as lack of profitability under global competition and changes in society.

Surprisingly, Taiji let the last pearl farm transfer their fisheries rights to the “Kujira-no-Umi” which translates to Sea of the whale project: This is the concept of keeping dolphins and whales in sea pens there supported by large government subsidies.

This put an end to the irreplaceable tradition of the pearl fisheries.

The budget given to coastal whaling in Japan is almost 4,5 million USD per year, and for all whaling operations extends to about 45 million USD (link in Japanese).

The whaling industry is treated as a special case and distinct from the other industries in Japan. But it is full of hypocrisy and false information. It is used to distract Japanese fishermen from the dealings and mismanagement of the governmental fisheries administration. Secondly, the whaling issue is used to appease the conservatives. Japan has followed and depended on the US, in trade and defence, since WWII. Japan has also aligned itself with the western countries in terms of politics and economics. But many conservative Japanese are very unhappy and frustrated with that development. The “Anti-anti-whaling campaign” that highlights Japan’s identity and the difference from the Western civilization is warmly welcomed by them.   

There are no “Alternative facts”. Japan’s whaling is no exception.