One morning last January, the fishermen of Taiji were surprised to find a large, living whale in their communal net. It seemed to have swum out of the past. For thousands of years, many and varied marine mammals have steered close to the Kumano coast on their long undersea circuits between breeding and feeding grounds.
Where Japanese whaling began with a passive acceptance of beached creatures as gifts from the gods, it first became an active, organised hunt here in Taiji circa 1606, which was then known as “kujira to tomo ni ikiru machi”, or “the town that lives with the whales”. The town is now dying, along with its only industry.
“Not many people work in whaling any more,” says Hayato Sakurai, curator of maritime history at the local whale museum. “Most of them are old. Young people don’t get jobs with the fisheries, because it’s very hard and doesn’t pay well. So they move away to the cities. This town is not really making any money.”
Taiji is actually more of a village, with a population of less than 4000, and falling. It is isolated from the rest of Japan by thick green coastal mountains, and from the rest of the world by a particularly deep blue sea.
On a clear day like today, from the lookout point at Tomyozaki – Sakurai’s favourite place, he tells me – we can see as far as the horizon that the local monks used to think was heaven. The story goes that a fleet of those holy seekers once sailed out to find it in small boats, and never came back.
According to Herman Melville, Ahab and his crew were sunk and drowned by Moby-Dick in roughly the same location. “This is still the place to catch whales,” says Sakurai, facing southeast toward the fixed net where that was proven again last winter. His museum houses the skeleton of a right whale, a species named in English by British whalers who thought it easy to catch, and therefore “right” to hunt. But he had never seen one in the flesh before January 17.
“It was such a huge animal,” he says. “Such enormous cubic volume … for the first time, I could almost imagine what the old whaling must have been like.” The watchtower we are standing on was originally manned by the earliest Japanese whale-hunting teams – or “kujira-gumi” – who would scan the Pacific for migrating schools. Most often, they would spot right whales, which tend to swim within sight of the shore. The sentries would then light signal fires in the pit below, sending small, expert crews out in brightly painted chaser boats with hand-harpoons.
Once the whale had been run down, the youngest and strongest of those sailors would dive through all the foam and ropes, climb onto the animal’s back, and end its thrashing with a sword through the blowhole, while saying a terse prayer for its soul: “Jouhou, jouhou.”
The technology has steadily improved since Taiji’s economic prime in the mid-17th century, when it used to be said that “a catch of one whale enriches seven ports”. The returns are now so diminished that even the eldest of the present villagers could not remember seeing a right whale in these waters, let alone catching one.
Almost everyone in Taiji is still a shareholder in the fixed net, and they all came out to inspect their prisoner for the one day and night he spent floating in it – a vast black remnant of former fortunes. The next morning, he was gone. “Luckily, the whale escaped by itself,” says Sakurai. He means luckily for the whale, but also for the community, which is already in enough trouble.
Right whales are now doubly protected, by a global hunting ban that has been in force since 1937, and an ongoing moratorium on commercial whaling, imposed by the International Whaling Commission in 1986. There has since been no legitimate profit in killing most types of large whale, although few deny the existence of a nationwide black market in their meat, or the long-standing collusion between certain fishing unions and the Yakuza (Japanese mafia). Neither is there much money left in a legal yield of seafood.
“Fish prices are not high,” says Sakurai. “And the set-net is not catching the expensive fish any more, like tuna and yellowtail. But it’s still the best source of income for the town. Except for the dolphin hunting.” It might just be the ocean wind in my ears, but the last part of that sentence sounds quicker and quieter.
When you’re talking about fishing in Taiji, dolphins are the elephants in the room. If anyone outside Japan knows anything about this tiny town, it’s because of a film called The Cove, which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2010.
Shot with hidden cameras by dive photographers, The Cove exposed the ugly industrial ritual by which Taiji fishermen drive dolphin pods into shallow water, banging metal poles to disrupt their sonar before killing almost all of them with knives.
“The movie was part of a stategy,” said the activist Ric O’Barry when I spoke to him before my visit to Taiji. O’Barry called this strategy “gaitsu”, which roughly translates as “external pressure” and which is, he believes, “the only thing that has brought any change to Japan since the second world war”.
Funded by the US billionare Jim Clark and directed by National Geographic veteran Louis Psihoyos, The Cove was largely made possible by O’Barry’s local knowledge. Having first made his name as the man who caught Flipper (in a previous career as a dolphin trainer, he actually helped to capture several of the animals who went on to play the title character of that popular 1960s TV show) his subsequent change of heart compelled him toward increasingly radical tactics in Taiji over the years.
Initially welcomed as a guest in 1976, when he took sides with the village against a US trade boycott that he then described as “racist”, O’Barry later became the enemy by documenting the dolphin hunt, and inviting foreign news networks to do the same.
“They didn’t kill the dolphins straight away,” O’Barry told me over the phone from Miami. “They leave them overnight. So I would bring in CNN or the BBC, and put them in my guerrilla nets up in the mountains, and they videotape the slaughter in the morning. The real danger for me was that some young Yakuza will want to make a name for himself … I’m always looking over my shoulder.”
For this reason, he started travelling Taiji in disguise – sometimes as a woman, in a dress, wig, and mask. O’Barry’s profile in the town is now too high for him to do this anymore, but he still claims to love the place, and assured me that it’s “very safe” for anyone but him. “It’s gorgeous. I encourage people to go there.”
In the future that he imagines for Taiji, all domestic demand for whale and dolphin meat has been neutralised by public awareness, which was massively raised by The Cove – not just in what it showed, but also in its allegation that these creatures contain poisonously high levels of mercury. It has not yet been enough to stop the cull, which will begin again in a few weeks, but O’Barry is more optimistic than he used to be. “I see it becoming a tourist town,” he said, “with whales as the theme.”
Hayato Sakurai is not in a position to make the same cognitive leap. He is not what he calls “a Taiji man”, but a city boy from Okayama, hired six years ago to help popularise the whale museum. So he knows that far fewer people come to see the beautiful lacquered patterns on the sides of old sekobune boats than to visit the dolphins in their ocean pens at the adjoining aquarium, all locally captured and trained. “I am technically a town employee,” he says, “and my salary is paid by the dolphin show.”
While we shop for lunch at the local supermarket, Sakurai explains that local fishermen make the better part of their income from sales of live dolphins to marine parks in Japan and abroad, rather than the meat on display in the seafood section, beside the packaged guts of pilot whales, and the more expensive delicacies cut from their tails. Some customers, he suggests, would admit that they don’t eat dolphin and never have.
The more politically-minded would probably insist that it is a vital part of traditional food culture. They might also tell me that the barbecued beef I just bought is no more or less ethical a purchase than sashimi slices from some other non-endangered species, such as Antarctic minke whale. Sakurai prefers to stay out of those debates. “As long as we are talking about the past, I am safe.”
In present-day Japan however, and in Taiji especially, history is hardly neutral ground. Our picnic lunch in the park at Kondorizaki leads the conversation towards a whale-shaped monument erected nearby in the 1970s. An annual tribute to whales and whalers, known as the “kujira kuyou”, is offered here every April 28.
It has origins in Japan’s religious mixture of Buddhism and Shinto, as an expression of both gratitude and remorse usually reserved for the human dead, but extended to certain animals in honour of their sacrifice. About 50 kujira kuyou are still performed around the country, the best-known at Koganji temple in Nagato, which is dedicated to the 75 whale calf foetuses interred inside.
Taiji’s equivalent has become a more public event in recent years. “It used to be a small Buddhist ceremony made by monks,” says Sakurai. “Now it’s attended by politicians from Tokyo, people from the Fisheries Agency and the Institute for Cetacean Research.”
The latter organisation is responsible for Japan’s ongoing scientific programme of “lethal sampling” among minke and fin whales in the Southern Ocean. This practice is routinely condemned by just over half the current member nations of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), but permitted under Article VIII of its founding treaty (which also allows for whale meat to be sold as a “by-product” of that research).
The Fisheries Agency, meanwhile, is the branch of Japanese government that grants licenses and subsidies to the few remaining small-type coastal whaling companies who continue to hunt their own territorial waters for species not regulated by the IWC, including Baird’s beaked whales, pilot whales, and Risso’s dolphins.
One such company is Gaibo Hogei, which is based on the far side of Tokyo in a slightly less remote fishing village called Wadaura, and shares its annual catch quotas with Taiji. As it happens, one of their boats pulls into port this afternoon, while Sakurai is showing me another monument – a memorial for the fleet that was wrecked in a storm on December 24, 1878.
Estimates of the death toll vary from 111 to 184, all experienced local sailors whose recent run of bad seasons had forced them out in worsening weather, against their own custom and wisdom, to get between a female right whale and her calf. What Sakurai refers to as “the old whaling” might have died the same day, although his fellow historians can’t agree on whether today’s coastal whalers are the last surviving custodians of that way of life, or if it’s already long gone. “Some say the link is cut, the tradition is stopped. Other books say ‘no, it is continuing’. Because the way they catch whales is so different now, but the way they cut the meat – the flensing and butchering – that probably hasn’t changed very much.”
When the Gaibo Hogei boat appears behind us in the bay, he advises me to stand back out of sight. From the road above it doesn’t look like they have caught anything, but most foreigners these fishermen encounter tend to be obstructive activists or intrusive journalists, and their defensiveness can look a lot like hostility to outsiders.
When asked, however, owner and operator Yoshinori Shouji sounds almost excited to be talking about it. A third-generation whaler whose grandfather founded the company in 1949, he believes that his business should concern nobody but its own shrinking base of workers and consumers.
“My thoughts are pretty simple,” says Shouji. “Whaling is a part of a fishery that supplies seafood. People in my area still enjoy eating soft Baird’s beaked whale meat, so my firm still takes that species.
“For me, the tradition is important, because I can live my life based upon the way my ancestors did. How that tradition appears in the minds of people outside the village should not be the only point that decides whether we can keep on whaling. The condition of resources, and management of fisheries, are also key factors.”
In other words, he is willing to accept that a cultural defence of right whale hunting, for example, became redundant when the right whales were hunted almost out of existence. For this, among other things, he is “happy to blame the inconsistency of US policy”.
Shouji is not the first. When Commodore Perry and his so-called “black ships” sailed into Uraga in 1853, effectively ending more than two centuries of feudal isolation, they forced the ruling Japanese shogunate to harbour American whaling vessels.
Yankee crews then over-exploited the surrounding waters until Japan’s own coastal whalers were driven to the kind of desperate measures that led to Taiji’s “great right wreck”. Further inland, relatively few people had ever eaten or even seen whale meat until after the second world war, when American occupation forces promoted it to the impoverished and malnourished populace as a relatively cheap and abundant source of protein, and relied on professionals like Shouji’s grandfather to provide it.
If it seems disingenuous for the Japanese government to now claim a shared and unified national history of whaling culture that only really belongs to a few marginal communities, it might also appear hypocritical for the US to lead the modern anti-whaling lobby against Japan in particular. Norway and Iceland are not members of the IWC, and continue whaling with relative impunity, while native fishing peoples of Alaska, Greenland and Russia are permitted to take annual quotas of protected bowheads or humpbacks under the IWC’s “aboriginal/subsistence” category.
The fishermen of Taiji, Wadaura, Ayukawa and Abashiri are not granted the same privilege because motorboats, advanced radar equipment and explosive-tipped harpoon guns aren’t considered traditional tools of the trade, and because the resulting whale products are then sold beyond their tiny, distant points of origin.
Shouji has questions for every opposed member of the IWC: “Does the word ‘tradition’ exclude any new technologies or monetary exchange?” “Do you deny that you take other wild, living resources?” In the absence of satisfactory answers, he suggests that Japan too withdraw from that organisation.
(Some conservation groups, such as Species Management Specialists, actually support a return to commercial whaling of certain abundant species, on the grounds that it will help to monitor and sustain those stocks.)
Like many in this country, even among the largely silent majority who don’t eat whale meat and don’t seem to want to – judging by the growing national stockpile in cold storage – he feels that western objections to whaling are based on unscientific and tacitly racist cultural values that ascribe a “special existence” to whales.
For their own part, the most vocal and pro-active of anti-whaling groups freely proclaim the emotional component of their argument, and counter-accuse the Japanese public of the most damning kind of ignorance. Asked for comment via email from his ship the Steve Irwin, Captain Paul Watson, founder and leader of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, sent back the following statement.
“We represent our clients, the whales and dolphins, and they don’t have time to wait for Japanese people to be educated on this subject. This would be like waiting for the Nazis to change their opinion about killing Jews.”
Taiji seems a long way from the resulting Antarctic sea battles of recent austral summers, in which protesters and whalers have reportedly been throwing butyric acid and concussion grenades at each other. But in a quiet, sunlit corner of the town hall, a very old man named Yoji Kita essentially agrees that there is no middle ground. The great-grandson of a whaler who survived the wreck in 1878, and grandson of the first local man to kill a fin whale with a modern Norwegian-style bomb lance, Kita is now head of the local education board, and last official who is even remotely prepared to discuss this issue with outsiders, if only to say that discussion is futile. To him, it is a problem of anthropology.
“You and I are from different tribes,” he tells me through an interpreter. “Your tribe now hunts only for sport. Mine still hunts as a way of life, so we will never understand each other.”
Kita is not necessarily referring to himself as Japanese, he continues, but a member of a much smaller, poorer community, excluded from his country’s post-war models of wealth and progress. And even if I could explain, without conscious or subconscious prejudice, why Taiji has no real option but to live in the past, he doubts that foreign readers would be able to see beyond their own worldview.
In this respect, the problem becomes epistemological. I want to ask if he believes that whales have souls, as his forefathers apparently did, and if pro and anti whalers might actually have this in common, but he will not take questions from strangers with their own agenda. “To write about Taiji, you cannot be neutral,” he says.
So while Mr Kita gives his long, polite and often persuasive reasons for not talking to me, I am staring at the white whale on his tie-pin, and casting my mind out to sea. Melville’s great book Moby-Dick ended somewhere off this coast, with a final fight between Ahab and the creature of the title. It’s hard to say whose side the author was on, and the white whale itself has since been read as a metaphor for every cosmic mystery from God’s will to Japan’s then-intractable trade restrictions. But his narrator’s deep ambivalence might yet allow for the possibility of suspended judgement.
The way this whaler tells it, what is wonderful about whales is not always lost on their hunters, and they don’t give up their secrets even when their guts are spilled. “Dissect him how I may then, I go but skin deep,” writes Ishmail, with all due reverence. “I know him not, and never will.”