Trouble at dolphin cove

IN A STORY by Ryunosuke Akutagawa called ‘The Spider Thread', the thief and arsonist Kandata is writhing in hell with all the other sinners when the Lord Buddha happens to look down from paradise. Buddha knows, as one who knows everything misses nothing, that Kandata once saved the life of a spider on a mountain trail. He took pity on a spider that it was in his power to squash underfoot, figuring that even the spider possessed a life worthy of some respect.

On the strength of this single instant of compassion in a lifetime of vileness, Buddha is prepared to throw Kandata a lifeline. He takes a spider thread and sends it floating down on the heavenly breeze in his direction. A skilled climber, the career housebreaker grabs hold of the thread and starts hauling himself up out of the hellish depths, full of glee at this surprising change of fortune.

And then he makes a fatal error. He looks down. The delicate thread is supporting not just him but thousands of other wretches, sinners desperately scrambling over each other to escape the terrible torments of hell. Acting quickly, Kandata snaps the spider thread below him and sends them all back down into a river of blood. The Buddha, according to Akutagawa, is a little saddened.

I am not a Buddhist, but I think we are meant to infer from this divine melancholy that the Lord Buddha had hopes of a better outcome, some evidence that Kandata's compassion towards the spider spoke of a larger capacity for compassion towards his fellow sufferers in hell. Now, however, there is nothing for the all-knowing to do but to snap the spider thread and send the thief tumbling back down.

The moral of the story is at least twofold. Even the smallest act of compassion is looked upon with favour, just as any act that is devoid of compassion ensures that one's suffering will continue unrelieved forever.


THERE IS SOMETHING of the thief in Ric O'Barry, star of a recent documentary, The Cove, which had its first Japanese outing at the Tokyo International Film Festival in October 2009, two months after its cinema release in Australia. I am old enough to remember O'Barry in his first incarnation, as Flipper's trainer in the television series of the same name. For ten years, O'Barry lived the high life as a result of the dolphin's popularity, until something happened to Flipper, or at least to one of the dolphins that played the lead, the one he called Kathy.

O'Barry had known this dolphin intimately. He had captured her, trained her, watched her give birth, nursed her back to health when she was sick. Then Kathy died in O'Barry's arms – a suicide, according to his commentary in the film. It was provoked, O'Barry believes, by the stress and depression that all dolphins suffer, and ultimately die from, when kept in captivity.

Kathy's demise was the turning point in O'Barry's life. Since her death, he has made it his mission to shut down the vast and lucrative trade in live dolphins that Flipper spawned. He does this by any means possible: by agitating at international forums on whaling, by rescuing captive dolphins, by blowing the lid on dolphin hunting using all the high-tech, gee-whiz surveillance camera and sound gear available to him. His compassion for dolphins is a formidable weapon that he wields with all the zeal of the convert, a man who once was lost but now is found.

Taiji, a small fishing village on the east coast of Wakayama Prefecture, two and a half hours south of Nagoya, is the setting for O'Barry's latest skirmish with his enemy. Nestled snugly in a remote corner of one of Japan's most scenic coastlines, it boasts a long seafaring history. When whales were still hunted there, it must have been a proud place full of proud men. Up on the wild headland that overlooks the Pacific on one side and the town on the other is a stone pulpit, where a lookout was posted to watch the horizon day and night for the whales' approach. This was a position open only to samurai. No ordinary folk need apply.

Now that the whales are hunted elsewhere, Taiji has turned to dolphins to save its fading fortunes. The town is a world leader in the capture and killing of dolphins, a practice sanctioned and overseen by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in Tokyo, and one that sees dolphins sold to marine parks all over the planet.

The Lord Buddha is no doubt watching events in Taiji with the same kind of sad aloofness he displayed when witnessing Kandata's fate. He is probably, like a lot of others, hoping and despairing in equal measure. I imagine he wishes he could look away, but knows that for him ignorance is not an option.


THERE IS NO nice way of describing what happens to dolphins at Taiji. Akutagawa's river of blood comes to mind. The fishermen hunt the dolphins down by banging on long metal staves, setting up an underwater wall of sound that confuses the dolphins' sensitive acoustic equipment. Panic ensues. The dolphins are harried into a narrow inlet in their scores, then a net is strung between the two shores and the prisoners remain there until the dolphin-buyers arrive to select animals for shipment to amusement parks as far away as Florida and Dubai. Each dolphin will fetch around a hundred and fifty thousand Australian dollars.

The ones that are left are murdered according to a quota system worked out by officials in Tokyo, and fetch six hundred dollars a head. Since this practice has started to attract adverse publicity for the town, the killing is now done in the dead of night, in a hidden cove off the main inlet. It isn't hard to imagine the scene, and thanks to the makers of The Cove there is now no need. The men are in their tinnies armed with spears; the animals are in the shallow water at their feet. After a while the water turns scarlet. When all of the animals are dead, their corpses are hauled aboard the boats to be taken back to town, where they are butchered and sold for consumption, although who actually eats the dolphins is hard to verify.

According to O'Barry, the meat is often labelled as whale and sold to unsuspecting whale-meat lovers in local supermarkets, especially in Kyushu, where I live for part of every year. Like a lot of claims made in the film, this one is hard to substantiate and to do so would really be missing the point as, to an audience presumed to be predominantly non-Japanese, there probably isn't a clear moral division between the options anyway. In the minds of most foreigners, eating whale is as damnable as eating dolphin, and in this sense the film's message is uncomplicated to anyone who isn't partial to either.

For a lot of Japanese, the issue of what is edible and what is not
cannot be described as a moral one. For Japanese viewers, The Cove is much more likely to have raised questions of national pride and cultural heritage than it is to have pricked the collective conscience – particularly given the can-do cowboy tactics the filmmakers spend half the film celebrating.

As they flaunt their questionable methods, the filmmakers reclaim the moral high ground by focusing attention on O'Barry's claim that eating dolphin is dangerous, that the Japanese are inviting a second Minamata if they keep foisting dolphin meat on an unsuspecting public. Footage of the victims of mercury poisoning at Minamata is included to drive home the point. Claims are made that dolphins caught and eaten by the locals are extremely high in toxins, including mercury. Hair samples are taken from a local fisheries spokesman and tested. The results are worrying. The issue is made to seem less about culture and more about public safety, and O'Barry can claim a victory on this score at least. Since agitation on the issue of mercury poisoning began, dolphin meat has been removed from the lunch menu in elementary schools. Compassion for dolphins morphed, by means of mercury, into compassion for Taiji's children.

This strategy is not likely to deflect attention from the cultural issues at the heart of the matter of what is eaten by whom. The question of culture remains, huge and intractable – the elephant whale in the corner. Taiji, as O'Barry says, is probably the only place on earth where you can have your whale and eat it too. Across the road from the whale museum and the marine park, you can buy a whale lunchbox and eat it while you watch the captive dolphins and killer whales go through their paces. Or you can take your lunchbox and wander around to the cove where the slaughter of the dolphins takes place, and sit on the seawall and watch the captive dolphins in the smaller secret inlet circle around in slow motion, trying and failing to make sense of things. Dolphins are smart, but they aren't smart enough. Without proper training of the kind O'Barry popularised, it doesn't occur to them to leap the fence and swim away.

Our lunchboxes were bought at the station in Wakayama, two and a half hours away, and featured not whale but a special style of vinegared sushi rice wrapped in fragrant leaves, and mackerel wrapped in kelp. But we couldn't taste any of it. The cove where we sat is Japan at its most picturesque. We had the place to ourselves. The autumn sky was cloudless. We should have been having fun, but down in the opalesque water a hundred metres from where we sat, there were five fully grown Flippers and one baby Flipper whose fates we knew, and that was enough to rob the day of any joy. Taiji was ruined for us. We already knew more about the place than we wanted to. We revised our plans for the afternoon and decided to get out of town on the next boat, and head for the hills.

The tourist in Japan is special, driven by appetites non-Japanese don't generally comprehend. The Japanese tend not to go to places where there is nothing delectable to eat when they get there. You come to Taiji to eat whale, the same way you go to Hakata, in Kyushu, to eat spicy marinated pollock roe – the localmeibutsu, or famed delicacy. You come, eat, buy ten packs to take home. If you can't take it yourself, you ask the shop to send it to friends and family by courier halfway across the country, with your compliments. The cult of whale in Taiji has nothing to do with actual whaling anymore. It is about the importance of eating in Japan, and the lifeline this provides for local micro-economies all over the country.


IN LATE OCTOBER 2009, the first section of the new main train station in Hakata, a ten-minute walk from my place, was opened. There are no new train lines, just a development that will see the current building – already a labyrinthine burrow lined with eateries and souvenir shops – massively extended so that more can be added. The section that has just been opened is divided into Gourmet Street on Level B2, the second basement down, Souvenir Street on Level B1 and Drink Street on the ground floor. When we went there the place was packed. Tiny bars full of businessmen with trains to catch were swilling the famous local shochuand spooning down lashings of offal stew, which is as famous in Hakata as spicy marinated pollock roe. Whale was on the menu too, as it is in every corner bar, but in our town it lacks the star billing that, in Taiji, makes it seem to be the only thing on the menu.

The queue outside the crepe shop on Gourmet Street was a mile long. This was what the girls in our town had come to savour: Japanese-style French crepes a dollar each while they lasted. In the morning the news must have gone out with the daily papers, on one of those gaudy printed sheets full of food specials: sushi day at the local discount supermarket, three platters for a thousand yen, pork-cutlet dinner for ¥390 until the end of the month, free curry and rice if you can find and present your ANA boarding pass.

My Japanese husband keeps a magnifying glass on the kitchen table so he can read the maps – a lot of these places are hard to find, but worth the search. It is difficult to eat badly in Japan. You would have to ignore every sign and resist every invocation to taste this or that dish of whatever it is that you have never seen prepared in just this way before.

It would be easy to dismiss the cult of food here as merely the supreme expression of a bloated advertising and media industry. Japan, my husband tells me, is a kajyo society, best translated as ‘glut'. There is too much of everything and too much information about all of it. Food is no exception.

I don't know what the Lord Buddha makes of all this over-consumption. He is usually depicted as well fed, even fat, but at the same time serene. He doesn't look like the kind of deity to harbour puritan thoughts on food, which possibly explains his success in so many cultures where scarcity is the norm.


THIS BRINGS US to the reason the Japanese hunt and eat whale. Even if the official line is that whaling is for science, this doesn't explain how so much whale sashimi, or dolphin in disguise, finds its way onto so many supermarket trays and so many hole-in-the-wall izakaya kitchens. The numbers differ, depending on who is counting. Opponents of whaling argue that recent rises in Japanese stockpiles of frozen whale meat reflect a fall in demand. Supporters of whaling argue that rising stockpiles reflect changes to whaling quotas and that demand is growing in line with supply. Even so, the figures are unspectacular. According to Nippon Research Center figures for 2006, some 95 per cent of Japanese have never eaten whale, or have eaten it only rarely. The numbers are dismal enough to have prompted occasional handouts of frozen stocks to schools, in the hope that a new generation might be encouraged to go for whale meat in a big way.

Taiji's fierce attachment to the whale, as both its town emblem and favourite food, seems misplaced if not perverse, as do rumours that the town's fishermen are planning to extend and improve the facilities for butchering and marketing dolphin. Whales were probably first eaten off the beaches in ancient Taiji because there was very little else. Japan is only recently a rich country, and is now deeply divided between the rich cities and the poor and ageing countryside. Anybody over sixty-five – and a disproportionate number of Japanese are – remembers when starvation was a real and visible threat to life. Even fishermen must have struggled. At the war's end the sea was still full of fish, even if the towns had been bombed out of existence or burned to the ground, but without fishing boats there was no way to catch them. The boats and the men who sailed them had all been drafted for navy service. Many never came back.

There is no way to reassure such people that these times will never return. Food security is a potent national anxiety here, given that one of the consequences of Japan's postwar prosperity has been increasing dependency on imported food. The defence of whaling stems in part from the perception that Japan must maintain its right to catch and eat whatever it can, in case there comes a time when foreign supplies, for whatever reason, start to dry up. The supreme irony of the current troubles in Taiji is that America is partly to blame, as it was America that encouraged a revival in the Japanese whaling industry after the war, and in effect popularised whale as a food source to a people on the brink of famine.

Kumi Kato teaches Tourism at Wakayama University. She is interested in sustainability and in spirituality as it relates to the environment. She invited us to a meeting with some of the local Taiji elders to discuss how best to respond to The Cove, given that in the eyes of the outside world their town is a gateway to dolphin hell. To them it felt as if a thief had entered their house and stomped around breaking things, before leaving empty-handed. The fact is, Kumi Kato tells the elders as gently as possible, they are going to have to find a better way to represent themselves to the world, a means to avoid the wily defensiveness the makers of The Cove have constructed for them as a default position. For Kato, the issue is whether the voices of Taiji's people have any chance of being heard above the din created by the film.

As a small first step, she suggests they invite local and international artists to come and live among them, to create positive relationships that take time and effort, rather than fly-in-fly-out confrontations like those in which activists specialise. Everybody agrees that this is a good idea, that cultural sensitivities have been badly damaged and will need help to repair.

We are asked what Australians make of Broome's reaction to the film, which was initially angry and is now conciliatory, in a confused kind of way. On the table in front of us are the minutes from the last meeting of the Broome Town Council. They include an unqualified apology from the council to the citizens of Broome with Japanese ancestry for any offence caused to them by remarks made at a previous meeting on the subject of The Cove. Whatever was said may, it is noted, have provoked racially motivated attacks on the town's Japanese cemetery. And for this the councillors are sincerely sorry.

The minutes also record a vote to immediately undo the ill-considered ending of the sister-city relationship between the two cities, while at the same time condemning the killing of dolphins. The gesture of conciliation is warmly appreciated, the condemnation of the dolphin hunt passed over in silence.

There are links between Taiji and far-flung towns like Broome all over the world, testament to generations of Taiji men who left to seek their fortunes as whalers, fishermen, sailors and divers for pearl shell anywhere there were prospects for betterment. One Taiji elder has just come back from San Pedro, California, where he met some of their descendants. There are many more scattered all over South America, Australia and the South Pacific.

We tell our hosts we are just as confused as they are, that Broome is a long way from anywhere and that the council's pronouncements are not an expression of a national consensus.

It is hard to know who is more deserving of compassion in this messy tale, or whose cross is the heaviest to bear. The makers of The Cove have no doubt that the dolphins deserve to be pitied the most, as they are so clearly defenceless and so handsome, nature at its most charismatic. The fishermen of Taiji are apparently unmoved. Dolphins, as far as they are concerned, are a livelihood for the whole town. Without the dolphin hunt, Taiji would shut down.

It is precariously close to doing so anyway. There are shuttered businesses and abandoned houses wherever you look, just as there are in all the towns you pass along the winding train line to get there. Japan's prolonged recession is taking its toll, nowhere more so than in backwoods towns with little to attract the scarce tourist dollar now that travel to other countries in Asia and elsewhere is so much cheaper. Instead of travelling to Taiji for the weekend, we could have gone to Seoul for half the price – around A$350, including airfares and a succulent Korean barbecue.

For his part, Ric O'Barry is trapped in a purgatory of his own making, forever the mastermind behind an entertainment juggernaut that exploited captive creatures he now believes have souls as evolved as our own.

Buddha has probably mulled over paradoxes like his on countless occasions. It is hard to know how he makes up his mind in cases so morally complex as this – how Buddha decides who should be condemned for eternity and who deserves a second chance. If Akutagawa's story is any guide, this deity's methods are as mysterious as those of any other. Having sent the thief Kandata down to hell with all the other poor sinners, The Lord Buddha, it is written, continued on his way down the divine pathways of paradise with a faint smile on his face. ‘I think,' the story closes, ‘it was about midday in paradise.'

It was lunchtime in Taiji when the meeting with the local elders ended. We could tell because there was a notice posted on the entrance to the Citizen's Hall as we left the building, inviting the townspeople to try the special whale lunchbox available today only between twelve and two at the fisherman's co-op down the street. A chance, the notice said, not to be missed.

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