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WDC in Japan – Part 4: A journey to Taiji’s killing cove

Katrin is WDC's communications and campaigns officer for policy & communication in Germany

Every year for the past 5 years in Taiji, Japan, 550 to 800 dolphins of various species have been killed, or captured and sold to zoos and aquariums worldwide. Before this period, the numbers were even higher. I had to visit the home of the notorious ‘cove’ to better understand why and how this is still happening, and what needs to be done to end it forever.

Please note that the content in this blog can be quite distressing.

When I returned to Japan after my visit to South Korea, my heart was full. Seeing formerly captive dolphins swimming free in the sea with their families showed me what was possible. The cheerful, combative energy of the Hot Pink Dolphins team had totally infected me. But only a few days later, feelings of sadness flooded in as I made my way to Taiji - the place that became known worldwide for its cruel dolphin drive hunts.

Lookout point over the slaughter cove in Taiji
Deceptively beautiful - the infamous slaughter cove in Taiji.

As I approached the town, I marvelled out of the car window at the incredibly beautiful scenery that presented itself to me. Rugged stretches of coastline, crystal-clear, shimmering turquoise water in idyllic bays, lush green trees and plants. ‘How could such terrible things happen in such a beautiful place?’ I thought silently over and over again.

Risso's dolphins

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Echoes of the past

Sayumi Yamaguchi, a committed activist, accompanied me to Taiji and offered to show me around. When we arrived, the relationship with whales and dolphins permeated the town. Everywhere I looked were monuments or information boards detailing the history of whaling – a practice dating back centuries in Taiji. I felt overwhelmed to be standing in the place where the hunting method of rounding up the dolphins and encircling them with nets before killing them was developed.

City map_Taiji Town

Sayumi took me on a short journey back in time through Taiji. We saw the old lookout points, once used to scour the sea for whales. Smoke would have been used to signal when a sighting had been made.

Smoke Signal Station. Watchmen at the whaling lookout, when they saw a whale's spout, lit a signal fire, blew into a shell trumpet, and gave orders to whale boast waiting on the sea,
Old lookout for whales

Watchmen would blow smoke through a shell trumpet to signal to the whaling boats that a whale was in the area.

Back then, whales not only played an important role in Taiji's diet, but also helped the small town to prosper. They were regarded as a gift from the gods and the complicated love and gratitude towards whales was evident. Whether in the form of a large statue of a mother humpback whale with her baby or a cute whale design etched into the letterboxes, the sentiment was all around.

Statue of a humpback whale and her calf in Taiji
Whale design etched into letterboxes

Taiji seemed to be a place of contradiction - infamous for its whaling, yet showered in tributes to whales.

Current reality

Today whaling is much less apparent in Taiji. Even though they are still involved in coastal whaling, targeting minke and beaked whales, dolphins play a bigger role. Billboards advertising activities such as swimming with dolphins can be seen everywhere. In summer, swimmers, canoeists, or people on inflatable animals crowd into a fenced-in bay in which dolphins are locked up. Hotels keep dolphins in small pools or sea pens to offer their guests that extra something special. If you look out at the water anywhere in Taiji, you will almost always discover such sea pens, in which a few dolphins have to eke out an existence in even less space.

Advertisement for swimming with dolphins
Between 2012 and 2017 over 600 bottlenose dolphins were taken into captivity.

Sayumi and I watched some dolphins in their little prisons for a while. They bobbed around motionlessly, day in, day out, with no freedom of movement. What else could they do? They seemed to have resigned themselves to their fate. It was only when a man approached them in a small boat, with buckets of dead fish, that they became restless. These dolphins were just a few of over a hundred who have had to have come to terms with this life – trapped and trained, only to be sold to marine parks all over the world for a lot of money.

Dolphin resort seapens_Taiji2

When I think about how they were abducted from their lives, torn away from their families or even watched them die, I sometimes wonder whether death would have been a less terrible outcome for them. Severely traumatised, imprisoned, deprived of all freedom, lonely - I can’t bear to think that perhaps they have no choice but to hope that they will die soon. There’s no other way out for them. The fact that we humans don't want to acknowledge the terrible things we do to non-human species makes me so unbearably sad.

Whale being captured during the Taiji hunts
Hand-picked for human entertainment. © Dolphin Project

Refusal to change

It's this selfishness and ignorance that has sustained the dolphin hunts in Taiji. It’s not the tradition of hunting or the significance of the regional food culture that drives the hunts, it’s about profit. Meat products are not only marketed regionally, but also sold as far south as Okinawa, where dolphins were hunted too until not so long ago. Taiji is not making a fortune with the meat but with the live dolphins, who are sold for at least five-digit US dollars.

Two dolphins performing at Connyland
One day, we’ll think, how could this cruelty ever have been considered entertainment? © Tambako The Jaguar on Flickr

But the ego of the community also seems to play a major role. I was told that Taiji considers itself to be something special. A close-knit community with a great deal of stubbornness that makes them believe that no one on the outside can understand them anyway. The people in Taiji don't seem to want to be understood at all, or have they just given up on this desire and their willingness to engage in dialogue? As much as I would like to see an end to the hunts in Taiji, I also understand the attitude of the villagers. They were met with a lot of aggression, accusations, and a lack of understanding, especially in connection with the release of the film The Cove  – an approach that is not the best way to bring about change.

International protests and criticism have not only failed to stop the killing, but also raised resistance within Japan.
International protests and criticism have not only failed to stop the killing, but also raised resistance within Japan.

Fostering understanding and appreciation

Taiji is and remains a tough nut to crack, which is why it is important to keep up the public pressure in a respectful way and to educate Japanese people about it. After all, aquariums and whale and dolphin shows are still booming in Japan. We must support the activists and organisations in the country who are fighting for an end to the hunts, and use our position and influence as an international NGO to work at the highest political levels. It may be debatable whether killing a dolphin is really worse than killing a pig, but what is not debatable is the long-term fatal impact of the hunts on the various populations and the ecosystems in which they play an important role. Not to mention the health risks for humans associated with the consumption of their heavily contaminated meat.

End whaling demonstration in Japan
Katrin at a demonstration against whaling in Japan

By joining forces with Japanese activists, we can bring about tangible change.

And whenever I feel sad and discouraged, I think back to the formerly caged dolphins riding the waves off the coast of Jeju. Every single dolphin and whale is worth fighting for. Change is possible, we just must not give up!

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