Dolphin hunt: Why Japan is unlikely to heed activists

Protesters are in Japan this week to bring attention to an aquatic hunt recently highlighted in a documentary.

Sea Shepherd Conservation Society/AP
In this Jan. 16, 2014, photo provided by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, bottlenose dolphins are confined in nets in a cove by fishermen in Taiji, western Japan.

If activists want to end the killing of dolphin and Minke whales near a Japanese village which was slated to begin this week, they might need a vegan spokesperson.

Many are trying to reach Japanese people on social media by tweeting their outrage in Japanese, but experts say this plan could make the people there more resistant to calling off the hunt. 

The six-month season during which residents of Taiji, Japan, corral hundreds of dolphins into a secluded bay and hunt them began Tuesday with little success due to inclement weather, according to The Guardian.

Thursday, as activists wait for the dolphin hunt to continue – as seen in the Oscar-winning 2009 documentary, "The Cove" – dolphin and whale advocates have taken to the Internet to protest. Some call for a boycott of the Olympic Games in Japan in 2020, while others urge airlines to refuse to transport the dolphins to aquaria.

Lincoln O'Barry is the son of renowned dolphin activist Ric O'Barry, who founded the eponymous Dolphin Project. Lincoln, who is currently in Taiji to protest, says, "The issue is branding. Everything killed in the cove is a dolphin. In Japan when people hear about whale activists they have a common enemy, but we're dolphin activists. People have been eating whale for centuries, but if you told them it was dolphins most of the people would be upset." Lincoln O'Barry says that his group put copies of the film in every mailbox in Taiji prior to the hunt. 

Protesters are attempting to reach the Japanese people by posting in both English and Japanese.

"We have seen social media ignite movements for change, including around the needless slaughter of animals around the world,” says Greenpeace Oceans Campaign Director John Hocevar says in an email response.

Shihoko Goto, senior associate for Northeast Asia – Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, is not a whaling expert, but dislikes the practice of whaling and the dolphin killing. She explains how the general Japanese mindset on the issue is very different than that of a Westerner. "Free Willy really never got big in Japan. People there do not anthropomorphize the way Westerners tend do."

“Criticizing the hunting of whales and dolphins is seen in Japan as a cultural double-standard coming from westerners who say, I can eat cow. I can eat pig. I can shoot deer and glorify it and hunting in general, but I cannot harpoon a whale that is seen as plentiful,” says Ms. Goto. “If you want to change that dynamic I would say it should dovetail with the anti-hunting campaign, or vegetarianism – if PETA [People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals] were to do it, it would have more conviction.”

Goto explains that this is because “appealing to the hearts and minds and emotions isn’t going to get you there if you’re just saying ‘Oh it’s really cruel to kill whales’ which it is, but we as human beings do a lot of cruel things to a lot of animals and this is no different. That is how the Japanese would see it.”

Colleen O'Brien, senior director of communications at PETA, writes in an email response that her organization is already in the fight for marine mammal survival.

“We believe PETA’s campaign to get captive marine mammals out of SeaWorld is what prompted SeaWorld’s announcement this week that they will not accept wild caught beluga whales imported from Russia by the Georgia Aquarium, which plans to use the animals for public displays,” writes Ms. O’Brien. “We think Sea Shepherd, Greenpeace, and other activist groups and individuals are doing excellent work to stop the Taiji dolphin slaughter,” she adds.

In 1986, the International Whaling Commission banned commercial whaling. But Japan was allowed to kill a certain number of whales every year for scientific research.

However, meat from the hunts goes to restaurants and supermarkets and some of the dolphins are sold to aquariums overseas which, while not illegal, drew backlash from activists such as Greenpeace and others internationally.

In March of 2014, a decision by the International Court of Justice which ordered a temporary halt to Japan's annual slaughter of whales in the Southern Ocean stated that Japan’s claims of scientific research are unfounded.

Goto concludes, "Everyone is looking for a Disney ending. That's not the way this culture is likely to respond in this instance."

[Editor's note: The original version of this story misidentified the activists protesting the dolphin hunt.]

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