Taiji Whale Season

Taiji Whale Season Begins & ‘Kujira no Machi ni Ikiru’ (Living in Whale Town)

September 1, 2011 was the opening day of whaling season in the town of Taiji, famous in America as the site of ‘The Cove’. The approach of Typhoon Talas, however, shut down fisheries across southern Japan. Taiji’s dolphin hunt will be postponed for at least the next few days.

The storm did not stop Earth Island Institute, a non-profit organization that focuses on conserving, preserving, and restoring the ecosystems around the world, from coming to Taiji. Their arrival was broadcast on most of the evening news channels. These programs included clips from the recent TV documentaries: Kujira to Ikiru – ‘Living with Whales’, first broadcast May 22, and its sequel: Kujira no Machi ni Ikiru – ‘Living in Whale Town’, shown July 24.

I previously blogged about the first film and Taiji whaling. The more recent film shares much of the scenes and footage with the first film, but brings some resolution to their problem: How to continue as whalers given the pressures of international protests, especially after the release of ‘The Cove’?

Allow me to describe the second film and current events in Taiji.

Kujira no Machi ni Ikiru – Living in Whale Town

This film and its predecessor were produced by NHK*, Japan’s national public broadcasting organization. The films share many of the same scenes as the first film (“Living with Whales”). They present the typical life of a whaler in Taiji, the most famous whaling town in Japan, with more than 400 years of whaling tradition. Taiji has become internationally famous (or infamous) for its dolphin-drive hunting after release of the documentary, ‘The Cove’.

The Japanese films follow the whalers and their families over the last year, with particular focus on three individuals: an older whaler who is also the leader, a young whaler and a teenage daughter of the young whaler. The first film describes these people, their historical and current whaling, and then touches on the practices the movie ‘The Cove’ is based on. ‘The Cove’ led to a storm of protests from around the world, sent to Taiji by phone, FAX and email, as well as an increase of foreign protesters.

Current scenes from Taiji are interspersed with scenes from ‘The Cove’, online sites (e.g. Sea Shepherd’s website), and confrontations between members of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and whalers, both in Taiji and in the Southern Ocean. The first film includes statements from Sea Shepherd members that explain their protests. Throughout most of these films, however, the protesters are seen as rude and aggressive: blocking cars and their drivers, shoving cameras in people’s faces, yelling at people and calling them names, often obscene.

In ‘Living with Whales’, the older and younger whaler expressed their distress at the protests. They both come from generations of whalers, and both have felt guilt for killing dolphins. The older whaler even stopped whaling for a time, and became a  ‘regular’ fisherman. The daughter of the young whaler was distressed as the issue of ‘The Cove’ was discussed in her school. All three of these main characters felt some shame generated from the protests, and wondered whether they could, and whether they should, continue whaling. The first film ended with this question unanswered.

The second film, ‘Living in Whale Town’, answers this question. It begins with a review of the first film, and adds parts of scenes not shown in the first film. This film emphasizes both the sacred respect they have for whales, and the sharing of this sacred life as they share whale meat.

A series of scenes follows the lead whaler as he delivers meat on his bicycle to widows and retired whalers. In all, he visits 30 households. He later eats whale with his young grandson and toddler granddaughter. ‘Who likes whale?’ he asks. His grandson raises his hand. Old family pictures of him with his wife and three young children are shown, while he tells his story. At one point he stopped whaling because he could not stand to look in the eyes of dying dolphins. However, his income as a fisherman was only half what he made as a whaler. Eventually he went back to whaling. Whaling paid for his house, his boat, and put his kids through school. At his family table with wife and two daughters they share a whale feast with various dishes of whale meat. The youngest daughter thanks her father, “Because my Dad continued whaling, I was able to return to college to become a nurse. I really appreciate my father.” The whaler looks down at his plate at the end of this scene, obviously moved by his daughter’s statement.

The younger whaler is also shown preparing and eating whale with his wife and daughters. Although he comes from a family of Taiji whalers, his wife comes from outside. Their daughter tells how her mother first reacted when given dolphin meat. ‘Do we eat this?’ she asked. In the film, they obviously enjoy the food as they discuss the issue of whaling. However, the whole family has been uneasy since ‘The Cove’.  In particular, the daughter wants to find some answer to the protesters, ‘Is whaling inhumane?’ At the end of the first film, her father explained that whaling was their culture. That explanation was not enough for the daughter. She has been busy researching whaling ever since. She is shown again at her school and several times in front of her computer viewing ‘The Cove,’ and the websites of Sea Shepherd and others.

As the movie progresses, the lead whaler is shown praying at the local temple. For the last 8 years, before going to flense (butcher) dolphins, he writes out Buddhist sutras to show appreciation for the life they have given to him and his family. This practice also calms him before he works.

Several scenes show the whalers gathered around the fire at dawn before going out in their boats. In their discussions, they say if they stop killing whales, they will have to kill something else. They conclude that it is the scenes of killing that generate most of the protests. Moreover, no one wants to see cows or any animal being killed. They have tried to close off the area where the killing occurs, but the protesters continue to try to expose the killing. When a person dies, only the family sees their dead face, then it is covered by a white cloth. In the same fashion, the whalers respect the sacredness of the whales they hunt, and try to protect their death in secrecy. The protesters are sacrilegious by exposing their death, which should be protected from the view of strangers.

Near the end of the film, the daughter reviews her thoughts of the last year, from shame to resolution. She saw foreign people coming to her town, telling her father he should be ashamed. She tried to avoid the issue in some ways, but after her research, she now realizes that, “We take lives and we live here. My father takes lives to support my family, and I eat this life to live, and I promise, I will never waste this precious life. We keep moving forward, looking ahead. Some day I believe I can say to the world with pride, that my town is a whaling town, Taiji.”

The final few scenes repeat earlier scenes of whaling, from Taiji, to the early end of last year’s research whaling in the Southern Ocean. As the Taiji fleet sets out from port, the narrator ends with, “The whale eating culture and non-whale eating culture crashed into each other hard. The culture of eating whales may disappear. September the new whaling season begins. Eating whales, catching whales are Taiji culture itself. They live with whales, continuously.”

The Opening of Whale Season in Taiji: September 1, 2011

The start of whaling season coincides with the start of the protest season. As mentioned above, Typhoon Talas prevented any whaling on the first and will keep boats in port for the next few days. The storm did not stop the Save Japan Dolphins Team, an Earth Island Institute Project.

Ric O’Barry, a trainer for the original ‘Flipper’ series and a star of ‘The Cove’, led a group of two dozen from 9 nations. They were met by an expanded force of 40 policemen, as well as the media and several locals. While the foreigners flashed peace signs, one man asked them in Japanese, “You Americans, what do you mean peace? You are the country that loves war the most.”

On the beach of the cove (i.e. ‘The Cove’) they gathered into a circle and Mr. O’Barry prayed, “We are here to pray for the victims of the tsunami, the Japanese people who are suffering and for these dolphins who are about to die in this cove.” He emphasized that they were not there to protest or disrupt normal activities. He has repeatedly thanked the people of Japan for their politeness and the police for their professionalism.

References and Acknowledgements

The documentaries were presented on the NHK station seen in Kyoto. Current news from Taiji was viewed on several stations, including NHK affiliate. Thanks to Reiko Yasui Reavis for translation of these films and comments in the news spoken in Japanese. Ric O’Barry has a blog for his trip to Taiji (with related links)


Here is a link to a Japanese TV report. This link will initially take you to a page with three choices. The top choice is the TV report. Note that the first part of the report includes footage from ‘The Cove’ and does not reflect the interactions that took place this year. Coverage of this year begins with the reporter in the blue rain gear being blown about on the coast of Taiji. This clip includes a quote from Mr. Barry after the prayer on the beach. It is nearly identical to the actual prayer.


* Japan Broadcasting Corporation

This entry was posted in Japan Sabbatical by Robert Reavis. Bookmark the permalink.

About Robert Reavis

I study fish behavior and marine ecology through direct observation while diving. I also teach General Biology, Marine Biology, SCUBA and Scientific Diving at Glendale Community College. This year (2011-2012) I will be in Japan to study Traditional Fisheries and Modern Environmentalism.

3 thoughts on “Taiji Whale Season

  1. Pingback: Taiji Town, Whale Town | Glendale Community College Blog

  2. Thank you for your comment.

    My blog on ‘Whale Season’ attempts to reflect the news and practices I observe here in Japan, not to obfuscate. At the same time, I try to avoid pejorative terms that imply right vs. wrong, especially given the different cultures involved, and to avoid terms that might offend any of my readers. Each reader can make his or her own value judgments.

    To clarify:

    • You are correct to state that in Taiji, ‘Whale Season’ is equivalent to ‘Dolphin Slaughtering Season’, although as you mention, not all the dolphins are slaughtered; some are sold alive to aquariums.
    • The blog did not state that whaling/dolphin slaughtering is ‘noble’. Rather, the practice is conducted by men trying to provide for their families. As noted, many of them feel guilty when they kill dolphins. However, they bring home food and money from this activity, and that is the primary ‘tradition’ of whalers/’dolphin slaughterers’ as well as all the other sea folk I have met in Japan (e.g. ama divers, nori farmers, oyster farmers, and cormorant fishers). They are all businessmen that make their living from the sea. In the case of Taiji whalers/’dolphin slaughterers’, they will sell their catch dead (dolphin meat) or alive (to aquariums).
    • I have not actually met with any Taiji whaler/’dolphin slaughterers’, nor have I eaten any dolphin meat with them. The basis of my report was from local news (in Japan) and the two hour-long documentaries produced by Japanese television (NHK). I did speak to elementary school kids and junior high school kids at another town about whaling and why American’s do not eat whales/dolphins. They were more concerned about why America, as the greatest polluter of greenhouse gases, had refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol.
    • I will visit Taiji as part of my sabbatical, but I have decided to go after the season is over. Hopefully, it will be calmer at that time.

    Best Fishes, RHR

  3. Why obfuscate?

    This isn’t a “whale season”. It is a dolphin slaughtering season.

    These aren’t whalers. They are dolphin slaughters.

    There is nothing particularly noble about drive hunting and slaughtering defenceless dolphins; and nothing traditional at all about selling the best looking ones off to dancing dolphin shows across NE Asia.

    I suppose in your own defence you might be able to claim some sort of strained tautological translation of the Japanese words used, but then those Japanese words are normally used to falsely sell dolphin meat as the more expensive whale meat.

    I suppose you’ve been going native eating their meat with the slaughtermen to prove your “trustworthiness”, have you?

    I’ll make Seaworld seem all the more intimate next time you go. A little part of them being a little part of you. My bet you are selling a bit of your marine biological soul and it will all come back to haunt you.

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