As someone who loves dolphins, I’m encouraged that ‘The Cove’ won an Oscar and is creating so much chatter about protecting whales and dolphins. But I’m dismayed at all the anti-Japanese sentiment that has been stirred up, particularly because I’m afraid this antagonism will not help the dolphins.
That the ‘ripples’ of the movie are wide is no surprise – ‘The Cove’ is an incredibly compelling and strong film, and I am grateful to the film makers for bringing international attention to an issue near and dear to my heart. I commend their courage and recommend ‘The Cove’ to everyone, particularly if you care about dolphins. I also want to make a statement here about how the goals of this movie can be strengthened. Reaction to ‘The Cove’ has alienated many Japanese people. This is unfortunate, because the people of Japan are in the best position to effect the change that ‘The Cove’ seeks to achieve. We need some voices that inspire Japanese people to the cause.
If you’ve seen ‘The Cove,’ you easily understand why the lines have become drawn as ‘good guys’ against ‘Japanese whalers’. By the end of the movie when you finally witness the cove red with blood – you are rightly enraged and ready to jump into action on the side of the technology-wielding modern-day heroes of the movie. But what is that action? Oceanic Preservation Society (OPS, who made the film) urges viewers to sign petitions to pressure Japan to stop the dolphin hunt.
On its face this may seem appropriate, but increased pressure has only hardened Japan against international opinion. On the heels of Kevin Rudd, the Australian Prime Minister, threatening to sue Japan in the International Court of Justice over whaling practices, two Greenpeace activists (one of them Japanese) were arrested in Japan. Is it any wonder? Japan is a democratic country. Why would any elected official – in Japan or anywhere – step up to say, “Let’s give in to international pressure!”? On the other hand, if the constituents – the Japanese people – were inspired and spoke up…the results would, no doubt, be powerful.
But ‘The Cove’ misses the opportunity to inspire Japanese people. There are no Japanese heroes, hardly any Japanese protagonists. Most of the Japanese people in the movie rudely do awful things or stupidly try to cover them up. There is a lone brave citizen who speaks out against serving mercury-tainted dolphin meat in school lunches. But he is a minor character, not portrayed as a hero. The brave councilman is a true-life, Japanese hero. But the protagonists of the film are the American/Canadian team that exposes the dolphin slaughter. I wonder whether having a Japanese person on that team wouldn’t have helped – not only in getting ‘behind enemy lines’ within the movie – but also in achieving the bigger goals of the movie.
The Japanese trailer for ‘The Cove’ focuses on the mercury issue, and I think this is a bit strange, because almost no one in Japan eats dolphin meat. The ruse (exposed by The Cove) to sneak the dolphin meat into school lunches occurred precisely because of the lack of consumer demand for dolphin meat. Also, I’m afraid that pitching ‘The Cove’ as a ‘mercury’ movie might only alienate Japanese audiences further. Mercury poisoning syndrome is called ‘Minamata disease’ because it was first identified and addressed as an environmental disease in the 1950s in Minamata, Japan. Japanese people are well-aware of the dangers of mercury poisoning and might think it ‘arrogant’ for Americans to try to ‘educate’ a nation which has already suffered with it. For a person who knows about mercury, it will seem bizarre to frame the mercury issue around dolphin meat when the threat is much more widespread with tuna, which is also increasingly tainted with mercury and is eaten in vastly greater amounts. In so far as the goal of ‘The Cove’ is to protect dolphins, focusing on mercury seems off-target because, given the vanishingly small market value of dolphin meat, banning dolphin meat sales will do nothing to eliminate the economic incentives of the Taiji fishermen.
As ‘The Cove’ clearly states, the powerful economic incentive for the Taiji fishermen is the hundreds of thousands of dollars that live, captive dolphins fetch from international buyers who want to use dolphins for entertainment in their marine parks. To destroy the economic incentive for the dolphin hunt, no one needs to ‘gang up’ on Japan. Rather, countries need to make a multilateral agreement to ban the capture and sale of wild dolphins around the world – and invite Japan to join.
“Let’s give into international pressure!” will gain no votes, but I believe a Japanese politician could say, “Let’s join the international community in preserving and protecting wildlife!” and expect support. Japanese people have a profound reverence for Nature. The simplicity and purity of the natural form is central to the arts of Japan as in no other culture. To find a voice that resonates with Japanese values in this way, we should call on passionate and talented Japanese artists who can fulfill this role, giving them center stage in the dialogue about protecting dolphins and other wildlife. I would like to include my own voice in this, of course – my Dolphin Dance Project. But while I am Japanese, I live and work in the US. To stop dolphin slaughters in Japan, it is critically important for Japanese people and especially artists in Japan to raise their voices and be heard. I believe that with the right inspiration, Japanese people will act to change their own laws to prohibit cruelty and protect the Natural world. Perhaps they would even inspire the rest of the world.
For the world has been inspired to action by pure, simple natural form in Art before…
In 1967, scientists Roger Payne and Scott McVay reported that humpback whales did not just make sounds – they actually sang together, repeating themes that changed from season to season. At that time, data were already beginning to accumulate about the dwindling numbers of some whale species. Hearing the sound of the humpbacks as ‘songs,’ people appreciated their haunting, almost dirge-like quality and were called into action to protect them. ‘Songs of the Humpback Whales’ was released as an LP in 1970, and in 1979, 10.5 million copies of the CD were distributed in an issue of National Geographic. Due to the change in people’s attitudes about whales, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) which was originally formed to make sure there would be adequate whale stocks for hunting around the world became increasingly focused on conservation in the 1970s and eventually declared a moratorium against most whaling in 1986. This did not happen just because of a single LP. Yet, it is well recognized that ‘Songs of the Humpback Whales’ was critical to the changes that have occurred in our feelings about whales since the 1970s.
In our goal to protect the dolphins, we need to appeal to everyone’s humanity – not just people in Japan – but everywhere in the world where the use of captive dolphins and whales for mere entertainment is so wrongly considered to be OK. There are many people in countries, including the US, who think it’s fine to capture dolphins for our entertainment. There are many Japanese people who love dolphins and know that exploiting them is wrong.
In addition, we need to stop poisoning our oceans with mercury by decreasing the burning of coal and controlling industrial emissions. Mercury in the ocean is like carbon in the atmosphere. Avoiding eating dolphin meat is not much of a challenge – not even for Japanese people. But the high levels of mercury in food fish are a problem for humans and dolphins alike. Our large fish (like tuna) are increasingly too toxic for us to eat. And dolphin babies are dying from drinking mercury-tainted milk from their mothers who have eaten mercury-tainted fish. We need messages that remind us that our fates are connected.
‘The Cove’ is a remarkable movie that has innovated documentary story telling. I highly recommend it, and I support OPS in their goal to end the hunting of dolphins in Japan. I also want to encourage us not to act only in reactive anger. Instead of ganging up on one ‘bad’ country, let us create international consortia to achieve environmental goals together. Instead of railing against the horror, let us find the inspiration for positive, inclusive action. Some of will find inspiration in whale songs or other Art – others in time spent in Nature: a walk in the woods, a swim in the sea. Whatever our own way may be, let us deeply feel our connection to the Earth again, that we may be moved to protect its beauty.