Conservation Japan Nature & Wildlife

Activist or Pessimist? A Taiji Dolphin Story – One Year On

You've been stickered. Taiji, Japan
Written by Kirstie Pelling

Activist or Pessimist?
A Taiji Dolphin Story – One Year On

Kirstie Profile SmallWhen we went to explore Japan a year ago I imagined a month exploring tea houses and temples not getting involved in campaigning against dolphin hunting. But I’m glad we did. One year on, it appears as if little of substance has changed in the world of the Taiji dolphin hunts, but my views on on the value of exposing kids to difficult issues and encouraging real world activism have….

This way lies freedom

An albino bottlenose dolphin calf called Angel darted between other species in a rust spotted tank. Cameron wrenched open a porthole in the wall opposite. Fresh air drifted in but the dolphins didn’t feel it.

“I’d really like to do this to the big tank, and let them all out,” Cameron said.

Hannah helped him open another porthole and they looked out, to the water beyond the Taiji Whale Museum’s perimeter.

“Freedom. Over that wall is freedom,” Cameron said.

His shoulders were heavy with the knowledge that for these dolphins, freedom was in the past. They would be trapped in their cramped bubble until they died. And they were the lucky ones.

Albino dolphin in captivity in Taiji, Japan

Albino dolphin in captivity in Taiji, Japan

Empowering the children

I felt his despair. But as we watched pilot whales wave bye-bye on cue to Japanese tourists and saw dolphins begging for food in outdoor pens, hopelessness turned to anger. What was this visit to Taiji teaching my kids? That they can’t change the world? That bad things happen and can’t be stopped? That life beneath the sea is meaningless to humans who think they can walk on water? At that moment, in that small harbour town halfway around the globe, I realised if we didn’t do something to empower our three children, they may carry these messages into their adult lives.

Before we left the museum, Cameron wished out loud that he could put stickers on those portholes. Show the dolphins the way out.

“F.R.E.E.D.O.M.” he spelled out in capitals.

It was a lightbulb moment; the moment a family of five became accidental activists. We visited the museum gift shop to buy some Post-Its. We were off to sticker-bomb a town.

Dolphin hunting in Taiji

Environmental activists aren’t exactly a rare species in Taiji. This small seaside town in the Wakayama prefecture of South Eastern Japan has a big, bad reputation. It came to international attention in 2009 when ‘The Cove,’ a thriller style documentary, won an Academy Award for its coverage of the town’s annual drive hunts. The dolphin drives last six months of each year, where according to environmental group Sea Shepherd, an average 1600 dolphins each year are captured for a life in captivity or killed in the secluded cove featured in the film.

The town has stayed in the spotlight since the film due to the work of the organisation’s Cove Guardians. Volunteers live stream the drives online, count the captures and record the slaughters. They film the selection process as the young, trainable dolphins are creamed off for aquariums in Japan and worldwide. They broadcast the killing of those that don’t win the beauty parade. And they record the rest being released, tired and vulnerable, back into the wild.

There are, of course, two sides to this story. The Taiji Fishermen’s Union argues dolphins are not an endangered species, that the hunt is a tradition which should be respected by other cultures. But campaigners say the practice only began in the late 1960’s to meet demand for aquarium entertainment. They argue that dolphin meat contains mercury and the fishermen’s methods of killing the cetaceans are inhumane. Many thousands signed The Cove’s petition to stop the practice and US Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy tweeted her concern.

Looking out over the Bay towards The Cove in Taiji, Japan

This pretty bay in Taiji welcomes holidaymakers in summer but becomes the scene for dolphin hunts between September and March months

The accidental activists

‘The Cove’ was hard to watch. I couldn’t un-see the moment where the sea turned red with blood. My kids certainly couldn’t un-see it. They had a disturbed night after watching the movie in our Hiroshima hotel room and voted to go to Taiji. To do something. As a family.

I am not an activist. But on a sunny Monday in August, ten days before the dolphin drives were due to begin for 2014, I found myself leading a small family protest. We wrote ‘Watch ‘The Cove’’ in our best Japanese lettering, on a pink heart shaped Post-It and stuck it on the map at the bay with dolphin stickers. In summer many families swim here. Many more feed and pet the captured dolphins at the Taiji Whale Museum. Our aim was to pass on what was going on in Taiji to these families. If we could get ordinary families like us to watch the film, then maybe they would tell other families.

We stickered the heart of Taiji; the toilets, the vending machine, a research boat, a whale mural and an advert for the local dolphin resort. We put a sticker on the rib cage of a statue of a whaler. Our mission wasn’t without tension – Japanese authorities take a dim view of graffiti and we knew from the film that local police closely monitor activism. But it was also very empowering. We were doing something. We were standing up for the dolphins.

Sticker on the Heart of a Whaler in Taiji

Sticker on the heart – a small protest on the heart of whaler statue in Taiji

Changes in the family

Back home, with distance between us and Taiji, I reflected on our actions in Japan. The fishermen continued to hunt and kill. Compared to the continuing work of the Cove Guardians our action was just child’s play. Who knew if anyone even managed to read our squiggles? But Taiji wasn’t all in vain. Something shifted in our family. We talked about our experiences. The kids started to bring up issues like devolution and ebola. We talked about animal cruelty and sustainable tourism. Matthew announced he was becoming a vegetarian. We made a video of our protest and put it on You Tube. It’s one of our most viewed videos. To our gratification over five thousand people have watched it and many commented. You can watch it here.

Signs of change but not enough

There was change outside of our family too. The media featured the start of the 2014 drives. Someone tweeted us to say that they’d seen our sticker in the toilet weeks on and wondered who had left it.

Celebrities got involved. Simon Cowell dropped a planned X factor segment on dolphins and tweeted that he will soon reveal a plan to help the world’s cetaceans. Richard Branson weighed in with a Virgin Pledge on Sea Mammal captivity.

But did anything actually change in Japan or Taiji? In May this year (2015) the Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums (JAZA) announced (under pressure of expulsion from World Association of Zoos and Aquariums) a ban on its members buying dolphins caught in Taiji.  And then the Whale Museum in Taiji withdrew from JAZA so it could continue dolphin trading.

Statue outside the Whale Museum in Taiji Japan

The statue outside the Whale Museum in Taiji says something about how deeply embedded the dolphin problem is

Activism not pessimism

Back in the comfort of our home we have kept an eye on Taiji over the past year. We viewed the Cove Guardian’s live stream of fishing boats departing Taiji harbour on their missions throughout the 2014/15 season. More than once I wondered if this was responsible parenting. Shouldn’t I be shielding my children from this gruesome reality rather than watching it live with them online? It’s hard to know.

But a year on and Taiji is still doing what it does. The hunting season began again September 2015 and recently Cameron and I sat at the computer and watched yet another video of dying dolphins, this time thrashing about on a rock at the foot of veteran campaigner Rick Barry while he struggled not to throw himself in to save it. When the video ended we sat in silence.

“One day they will stop.” said Cameron, eventually.

I wish I shared his youthful optimism; his belief that things will change. Call me old and cynical, but I’m not so certain. The issue in Taiji appears simple to him; it’s cruel, unnecessary and wrong. To me it’s more complex – a tangle of historical, commercial and political interests entwined in the culture of a foreign land. But I’m not sure how much of this to share with him. I don’t want my wizened attitude to squash his beautiful sense of hope and possibility. Change needs activists not pessimists, action not apathy, commitment not commiseration. Isn’t that what I should be nurturing in my kids? 

If our experience in Taiji taught us one thing it is not to let complexity put you off doing something. We couldn’t let the dolphins out of the tank. But the kids could open a porthole and let them see freedom. We couldn’t stop anyone hunting, but we did at least try to raise awareness with stickers and a YouTube film.

I used to think it was better to shield my kids from these kinds of things but one year on I’m more of the view that in some ways my kids are like the dolphins; easily imprisoned by pessimism or feelings of hopelessness. It’s my job to open portholes, show my kids these issues, helping them figure out how to respond to them, give them money for stickers. For it’s that’s that will give them the freedom to become active, engaged and responsible adults, to engage with difficult issues, become involved in taking small actions to try and change things. Even if they never manage to change a thing.

Clearing out the cupboard the other day I found the remainder of the dolphin post-its and wondered if we should go back and put up some more. Maybe I should ask them. And if they say yes, not be the one who puts up the barriers.

Sticker on the heart in Taiji, Japan

Sticker on the heart in Taiji, Japan

About the author

Kirstie Pelling

Kirstie is the Editor of The Family Adventure Project. A professional writer and poet, she's the creative and journalistic force behind many of the stories and features published here. She's a co-founder and co-director of The Family Adventure Project and also works as the #poetinmotion producing and performing poetry for print, video and live performance.

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