Taiji Town, Whale Town

Taiji Town earned its fame as a whale town more than 400 years ago. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Taiji whalers adopted, and then adapted, American and Norwegian whaling technology. Eventually, men of Taiji went to the Southern Ocean to join the modern fleets of industrial whalers. The Japanese whalers dominated this fishery by 1937. Since the end of industrial whaling, Taiji whalers once again focused on local whales. Their current hunt for dolphins has brought the town international attention and controversy (e.g. the 2009 Academy Award-winning documentary, ‘The Cove’; see Photos 1 & 2).

Welcome to Taiji

Photo 1: ‘Welcome to Taiji Town’ road sign.

Mom & Calf Statue

Photo 2: This statue of a mother and calf zato-kujira (humpback whale, Megaptera novaeangliae) overlooks the road into Taiji. Humpbacks and North Pacific right whales (semi-kujira, Eubalaena japonica) were the two most common whales taken in Taiji’s traditional whale fishery.

I had previously visited Taiji to study the town’s whaling history – most recently in June 2009, weeks before ‘The Cove’ was released. Last summer (2011), the Japanese national television company, NHK, aired two shows about Taiji, largely in response to ‘The Cove’.

I avoided Taiji Town during the dolphin hunt, from September to February, and returned to Taiji in March 2012. My visit included a tour sponsored by the local tourism board and led by Hayato Sakurai, Curator of Taiji Historical Archives. Mr. Sakurai is not only an expert on Taiji’s whaling history, he spent years as a curator of the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts. Our tour began at the Taiji Whale Museum, included several stops within town (temples, shrines, whalers homes), and visits to promontories along the coastline where lookouts once watched for whales and signaled to the whalers down below (see Photo 3).

Boy & Dolphin

Photo 3: Statue of a boy and dolphin outside Taiji’s Whale Musuem.

Traditional Whaling in Taiji Town

Taiji Town occupies a small peninsula near the southernmost tip of Honshu Island (Japan’s ‘mainland’). The modern town is the smallest in land area of any town in Wakayama Prefecture. Houses are tightly packed between steep hills (Photos 4 & 5). To survive here, the people of Taiji depended on the ocean for their livelihoods.

Taiji Map Sign

Photo 4: This ‘Welcome to Taiji’ sign includes a map of Taiji. Kandori-zaki – one of the old lookout points – is in the lower left hand corner (by modern lighthouse). To the right of Kandori-zaki is a second lookout point, Tomyo-zaki (by small island), at the mouth of Taiji’s port. Taiji’s town-owned Whale Hotel is centrally located along the shoreline. Two hills (in green, with bench icons) to the right of the hotel offer views. Between them, is Kujirahama, Kaisuiyokujyou – ‘whale beach, public swimming beach’ (swimming boy ikon) aka ‘The Cove’. The Whale Museum with its outdoor aquarium and ocean pen are right of the cove (with orca ikon).

Overview of Taiji

Photo 5: View of Taiji from Jyunshin-ji (temple and cemetery). Notice the tightly-packed houses surrounded by hills.

Little is known of the early history of Taiji’s whaling, although some form of whaling has been practiced for centuries. The town juts out into the Pacific and whales swim close to shore on their migrations. The first whale might have been ‘caught’ when a whale stranded on the Taiji shoreline, or was accidentally entangled in fishing nets. Regardless of its origins, Taiji was recognized for its organized whaling by 1606. Later that century Kakuemon Wada of Taiji (aka Kakuemon Taiji) invented a unique style of net whaling that used a pair of large, semicircular nets to capture whales. The best records of this style of whaling come from scroll paintings made in the 1700-1800’s (see Photo 6).

Whaling Scroll

Photo 6a: ‘Old Whaling in Taiji’ scroll painting, Taiji Whale Museum. Close-up of the scroll showing the zato-kujira (humpback whale) entangled in nets; note the single harpoon stuck in its head.

Whaling Scroll

Photo 6b: The middle of the scroll shows most of the net, with yellow floats, and several of the boats holding the nets in place.

Whaling Scroll

Photo 6c: The other end of the scroll. A total of 22 boats are involved in this hunt.

Taiji whalers perfected their technique over the next 200 years. By the 19th Century, each role in the whale hunt was codified, and many of these roles were hereditary. Three primary types of boats were involved: seko-bune (chase boats), ami-bune (net boats) and mosso-bune (tow boats). Chase boats carried 15 men and 8 oars. They were sleek and fast, covered in black lacquer and painted with brilliant designs (see Photo 7).

Museum Boat

Photo 7a: A life-sized model of a traditional seko-bune (chase boat), Taiji Whale Museum. Each boat was powered by eight oars and a crew of 15 men. View of the port side of the boat. The harpooner – hazashi – prepares to hurl his harpoon. Pairs of men handle each of the three forward oars. Note the phoenix pattern.

Museum Boat

Photo 7b: View from the aft, starboard side, showing the three forward oars with their pairs of rowers, and the last (fourth) oar on each side of the boat with their single oarsmen.

Museum Boat

Photo 7c: A whales-eye view of the harpooner and chase boat.

Lookouts were placed at promontories overlooking the sea, particularly at Kandori-zaki and Tomyo-zaki (see Photos 8 & 9). Lookouts used signal sticks, flags, smoke, and shell horns to indicate the type and number of whales seen, and their location (Photo 10). A beach master, ami-moto, coordinated the hunt from shore.

Kandorizaki Firepit

Photo 8a: Kandori-zaki lookout point. A modern lighthouse is situated on the hill above this point. The marker poles identifies this lookout point. Beneath them is a fire pit. Smoke was one of the signals used by lookouts to communicate with the whalers.

Kandorizaki View

Photo 8b: Looking northeast from Kandori-zaki toward Tomyo-zaki (see the map in Photo 4 for orientation).

Tomyozaki

Photo 9a: Tomyo-zaki lookout and the ocean beyond.

Tomyozaki

Photo 9b: Tomyo-zaki lookout and the ocean beyond.

Signal Flags

Photo 10: Signal flags and horns used to coordinate the traditional whale hunt (from Taiji Whale Museum). The old whalers used these items, other types of signal sticks, and smoke to communicate the type and number of whales, their location and movements, as well as the decisions as to which whale to hunt.

Chase boats herded whales into nets that were spread out and held in place by the net boats. The okiai (chief harpooner) rode in the highest ranked chase boat, and struck first with his hand thrown harpoon. It was a dangerous job to harpoon animals much larger than the narrow, 10 m chase boats. Moreover, once the whale had been harpooned, an apprentice harpooner had to jump into the water, climb onto the whale, reach into the whale’s blowhole to poke a hole through the whale’s septum, and tie a rope through the septum to prevent the whale from escaping. Other chase boats coordinated their attacks until the whale was entangled in the net and subdued. Finally, the whale was wrapped up between two towboats and brought to the harbor (Photo 11). On shore, others waited to process the whale. Every piece was used. At the peak of traditional whaling, up to 700 townspeople were involved, including boat makers, lookouts, whalers and the butchers on shore.

Diorama of Whale Hunt

Photo 11a: Diorama of a traditional whale hunt, Taiji Whale Museum. The whale is entangled in the nets and harpooned.

Diorama of Towboats

Photo 10b: The dead whale is lashed between two towboats so that it will not sink on the way into the beach.

Elsewhere in Japan, Buddhist doctrine prohibited the killing of animals and the eating of red meat. During the Edo Period (1603-1868) meat was officially forbidden. Whale, however, was an exception. Choice cuts were sent to the shogun, emperor and local lord. Still, Buddhist monks were against the eating of whale. In 1754, the whalers of Taiji had failed to capture whales and were near the end of their reserves. They begged a visiting monk from Osaka to pray for them and bring them whales. Tanjuzenji (the monk) initially refused. However, as he realized the people were near starvation, he agreed to pray for whales. When the whales eventually arrived, the people rejoiced. They gave the monk gold and whalebone for Zuiko-ji, his temple in Osaka. There, the monk built Setsugeikyou – a bridge made of whalebones. The bridge has been rebuilt several times, most recently in 2006, from whales killed in 2005. Taiji school children visit each May to honor the monk and the whales (see Photo 12).

Whale Bridge

Photo 12: Setsugeikyou – the bridge made of whalebone, viewed from Zuiko-ji temple in Osaka. In 1754, Tanjuzenji , the monk of this temple, prayed for whales to come to the people of Taiji. In thanks, the Taiji people gave him gold and whalebone. They continue to send fresh whalebones to maintain the bridge (these bones from the 2005 season), and the Taiji school children visit every year in May.

In 1768, a monument to whales was erected at Taiji’s Tomyo-ji temple. Whalers recite sutras (Buddhist prayers) here to atone for their sins and give thanks to the whales (see Photo 13). The designs painted on whaleboats also might reflect the sacredness of the surrounding Kumano area with its Mt. Nachi, Nachi Waterfall and Nachi River. Nachi River flows directly over the sea toward the ‘Pure Land’ of Japanese Buddhism (a heavenly place of enlightenment). Taiji whalers fished the waters between Nachi Beach and the Pure Land, under the eye of the divine. Whaleboat designs were a featured exhibit at the Whale Museum ‘Whale Boats:  Styles and Designs’ (see Photos 14-17).

Tomyoji

Photo 13: Tomyo-ji temple, Taiji. The stone marker on the left of the picture (Buddha’s right side) states, ‘We got together here and read the mantra [prayer], to hope the whales are resting in peace, and hopefully our crime will disappear [because of the mantra].’ It is the only memorial in Taiji dedicated to whales before the IWC placed a moratorium on whaling.

Whale Boat Open

Photo 14: An introduction to the Taiji Whale Museum’s exhibit, ‘Whale Boats: Styles and Designs,’ featuring original paintings by Kei Tsuchinaga. Ms. Tsuchinaga produced her drawings based primarily on two source paintings, ‘Nankai Tokugei Zue’ (Paintings of whaling in the South Sea, New Bedford Whaling Museum – shown in this photo) and ‘Kujira-bune Emaki’ (Whale boat scroll painting, Taiji Whale Museum), as well as three pieces of actual boats (see Photo 15).

Old Boat Pieces

Photo 15: Two pieces of traditional whaleboats: the sideboard of the #5 seko-bune (chaser boat, above) and the bow of the #2 seko-bune (below, Taiji Whale Museum). Each boat had specific designs for identification. The unusual amount of detail on these boats suggests the designs might have been inspired by the surrounding Kumano area, and the sacred Nachi Falls and Nachi River that lead to the ‘Pure Land’ across the ocean.

Chaser Boat Picture

Photo 16: Ms. Tsuchinaga’s painting of seko-bune (chaser boat) #11.

Net Boats

Photo 17: Ms. Tsuchinaga’s paintings of ami-bune (net boats). Note the simpler design repeated on each of these boats, other than their unique number at midship. They are numbered 1 to 10 (#1 is on the upper right, #10 on the bottom left).

Americans and other westerners whaled along Japan’s shores by the early 19th Century. American’s dominated whaling throughout the century, with over 70,000 people employed in the industry at the time of Moby Dick (published in 1851). Whereas Taiji whalers took one whale at a time and consumed every part of the animal, Americans took as many whales as they could hold: keeping only the whale oil, baleen and ivory, and throwing the rest of the animal back into the sea. American whalers established stations throughout the Pacific where they could come ashore and provision their ships (e.g. Hawaii). Pressure from whalers was in part responsible for Commodore Perry’s mission to ‘open’ Japan. Perry forced the shogun to sign the Convention of Kanagawa in 1854 (Photo 18).

Perry

Photo 18: ‘Gasshukoku suishi teitoku kōjōgaki’ (Oral statement by the American Navy admiral) woodblock print of Commodore Perry (center) flanked by two other US naval officers (image from Wikipedia, public domain). Perry came to Japan in 1853 with a letter from President Millard Fillmore, demanding that Japan open its ports to American (and other) ships. Perry returned to Japan in 1854 to conclude the Convention of Kanagawa, which opened Japan to foreign trade after 250 years of near total isolation.

The End of Traditional Whaling: Seminagare

Taiji’s shore-based whaling apparently declined in the mid-19th Century, probably in part due to the American whaling fleet. However, few records have survived. A catastrophic earthquake and subsequent tsunami destroyed the town in 1854.

A second catastrophe in 1878 ended Taiji’s traditional whaling. It had been a bad year for whaling. Few of the preferred whales (semi-kujira, North Pacific right whales, Eubalaena japonica, zato-kujira, humpback whales, Megaptera novaeangliae and ko-kujira, gray whales, Eschrichtius robustus) had been seen. On December 24th, two North Pacific right whales – a mother and her calf – were spotted offshore. Tradition forbid the taking of mother whales, but the poor season led to the decision to hunt these whales. It was a mistake. Over 100 whalers were lost at sea trying to capture these whales. The head of the whaling fleet, Kakuemon Taiji, gave this account 23 years afterward.

“Around 1:30 p.m. on December 24, 1878, the lookout at Tomyo-zaki spotted a large right whale of unprecedented size with a calf, and informed each whaleboat. They did their best to tangle the whales with nets, but the whales also fought hard. The fleet was taken about 20 km off the coast, where the whales finally died the next morning, around 10:30 a.m. The current was strong and so was the west wind, which blew the fleet to the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean. They could do nothing. They let the whales go and headed for land. The west wind got worse by nightfall. It turned out to be a disaster. A passing ship rescued the crew of one boat, another boat landed on a beach in Atawa, and one other washed up on Kozushima Island. But the rest of the fleet went missing. Words cannot describe the wretched state of the hundreds of bereaved.” (from the Taiji Whale Museum’s catalogue for ‘The Last Harpooner’ exhibit, by Hayato Sakurai).

This single event, Seminagare (Right Whales, and Drifting Away) effectively ended Taiji’s traditional whale fleet. Most of the whalers and their boats were gone. The few survivors continued to whale for the next few years, but by 1881 it was over. A memorial to the lost whalers overlooks the port of Taiji (see Photo 19).

Monument for Lost Whalers

Photo 19: Monument to the lost whalers of the December 25, 1878 catastrophe, Seminagare (Right Whales, and Drifting Away). Over 100 whalers and most of the fleet were lost at sea.

Modern Whaling and Tourism

Traditional whaling soon gave way to modern whaling. Men of Taiji travelled to America and other lands, some returning with western technology. Two young men of Taiji created 3-harpoon and 5-harpoon guns, after returning from their voyages to America. These guns were used to hunt kobiregondou (short-finned pilot whales, Globicephala macrorhynchus) off Taiji (see Photo 20).

Maeda Gun

Photo 20: Maeda Triple-Barreled Whaling gun (Taiji Whale Museum). Kanezo Maeda, born in Taiji in 1878, travelled to America to study whaling. He returned to Taiji and built his triple-barreled gun in 1903. He later developed a five-barreled gun.

Others from Taiji went overseas to fish and whale. Many eventually returned and brought home with them foreign customs (see Photo 21). Some stayed in their new homes, particularly in three communities that worked the seas: Steveston, British Columbia, Canada (salmon industry), Broome, Western Australia, Australia (pearl industry), and San Pedro, California, USA (abalone and tuna industries). Taiji people in San Pedro lived on Terminal Island in houses owned by the canneries. They had their own school, temple and shrine. They even raised money for the American principle of their school to visit Taiji so she could better understand their culture (see Photos 22 & 23). The Japanese of Terminal Island were the first to be interned, in December 1941. By the end of February 1942, the entire village had been sent to camps.

Painted Houses

Photo 21: This home in Taiji was painted several years ago. The practice of painting homes was a custom picked up by voyagers from Taiji on their travels to foreign lands. Elsewhere in Japan, homes are not painted.

Welcome

Photo 22: Photograph of the American Principal of the Terminal Island Elementary School, San Pedro, CA surrounded by the children of Taiji. Many of the Japanese immigrants on Terminal Island came from Taiji. They raised the money to send the principal on this visit to Taiji. Note the ‘Wellcome’ [sic] sign behind them (first panel of the ‘Taiji on Distant Shores’ exhibit, Eitaro Ishigaki Memorial Museum, Taiji, curated by Hayato Sakurai).

Guide

Photo 23: Mr. Miyodori, one of our tour guides, poses in front of a 1935 picture of his grandfather and other Taiji immigrants, enjoying a picnic in San Pedro, CA (‘Taiji on Distant Shores’ exhibit).

In 1900, Juro Oka, the father of modern Japanese whaling, began to use the latest Norwegian technology, including exploding harpoon guns and steam powered boats. He even hired Norwegian gunners. By the 1930’s Japan was sending their boats to the Southern Ocean, to join the other industrial whaling nations. By 1937, they had become the most productive fleet. Men of Taiji were an integral part of this fleet.

Whaling stopped during the war in the Pacific. However, General MacArthur sent the Japanese back to the Antarctic with a US Naval escort in November 1945, three months after the war was concluded. MacArthur knew that whales had become an important source of protein for Japan. For the next 40 years, Japan dominated the southern whaling industry, and Taiji whalers were well represented (see Photo 24).

Research Whale Boat

Photo 24: Ami and Marina pose next the statue of a traditional harpooner in Taiji. Behind them is a whaleboat from the 1970’s. This boat, manned by whalers from Taiji, made many trips to whale in the Southern Ocean. It was recently moved here and replaced an older vessel.

The modern whalers were too successful. The International Whaling Commission formed in 1946 to regulate the industry. By the 1960’s it was clear that the biggest whales were highly endangered, and one-by-one they became protected. A complete moratorium on commercial whaling went into effect between 1986 and 1988.

As whaling declined, the mayor of Taiji decided to build on the town’s whaling tradition as a tourist attraction. The town built the Taiji Whale Museum, which opened in 1969. The facility consists of a three-floor building with museum and gift shop, dolphin aquariums and sea pens outside, and other whale and whaling related displays (see Photos 25 & 26).

Museum Front

Photo 25: The front entrance of the Taiji Whale Museum with its iconic image of a semi-kujira (North Pacific right whale, Eubalaena japonicus).

Blue Whale

Photo 26: Skeleton of a shironagasu-kujira (blue whale, Balaenoptera musculus) displayed on the grounds of the Taiji Whale Museum.

The central space inside the museum is filled with whale skeletons. Above these skeletons is a life-sized model of a right whale and chase boat, with its crew of 15 men (see Photo 7, above). The right whale was based on an actual whale, whose skeleton rests below (Photo 27).

Right Whale

Photo 27: Skeleton of a North Pacific right whale in the central hall of the Taiji Whale Museum. The original body of this whale was used to create the model hanging above (see Photo 7).

Several of the other exhibits were previously referenced above – the scroll painting that documents Taiji’s traditional net-whaling, an interactive diorama that animates the whale and lights up the different lookout points, and the two special exhibits: ‘Whale Boats: Styles and designs’ and ‘The Last Harpooner: The end of old whaling, and an introduction of American and Norwegian whaling’ (both curated by Hayato Sakurai).

The museum’s gift shop sells stuffed toy dolphins and whales, and other whale-themed souvenirs. Also for sale are whale cookies (real cookies, shaped like whales) and whale meat: frozen, dried and canned (Photo 28).

Dolphin Toys

Photo 28a: The Taiji Whale Museum store sells a variety of souvenir and gift items including stuffed toy dolphins, anemone fish wine holders and neck ties.

Whale Cans

The Taiji Whale Museum store sells a variety of souvenir and gift items including whale sausage (on the left), canned whale (middle), whale cooked in sauce and vacuum packed (right). Whale bacon, whale jerky, salted whale and other items are kept in refrigerated cases (not shown).

Outdoors, a dolphin aquarium offers a show with leaping dolphins, similar to SeaWorld. We saw one bandouiruka – common bottlenose dolphin, Tursiops truncatus, and two kamairuka – Pacific white-sided dolphins, Lagenorhynchus obliquidens (March 2012). Trainers will take your picture with a dolphin after the show (Photo 29).

Petting Dolphin

Photo 29: Marina and I pet a common bottlenose dolphin after the show, Taiji Whale Museum.

Other dolphins are housed in sea pens (hanagondou – Risso’s dolphins, Grampus griseus, okigondou – false killer whales, Pseudorca crassidens, common bottlenose dolphins and short-finned pilot whales). They perform in shows and can be fed by hand (Photos 30-32).

Jumping Pilot Whale

Photo 30: A kobiregondou (short-finned pilot whales, Globicephala macrorhynchus) performing in the ocean aquarium, Taiji Whale Museum.

Feeding

Photo 31: Feeding the dolphins is a popular activity at the Taiji Whale Museum; 200 yen (about $2.50) buys a handful of fish.

Three Dolphins

Photo 32: A short-finned pilot whale and two hanagondou (Risso’s dolphins, Grampus griseus) looking for fish, Taiji Whale Museum.

An indoor aquarium houses other marine creatures (fish, crustaceans, etc). The largest tank houses a ‘four-finned’ bottlenose dolphin captured in 2006. She has a normal pair of pectoral flippers (‘fins’), and a small pair of fins near her pelvis. These rudimentary fins are not normally expressed by dolphins or whales. Their appearance in this animal may be the expression of genes for hind limbs that have been ‘turned off’ for 20 million years – evidence of her tetrapod ancestry (see Photo 33).

Four-Finned Dolphin

Photo 33: The ‘four-finned’ common bottlenose dolphin, Tursiops truncatus, Taiji Whale Museum. Captured in 2006, it is the only dolphin living in captivity known with external pelvic fins. The expression of hind limbs occurs rarely in cetaceans.

The town built the Hakugei (White Whale) Hotel near the Whale Museum, separated by a small cove (‘The Cove’, see map, Photo 4, and Photo 34). The dinner plan includes whale dishes and the hotel sells whale-themed souvenirs (Photo 35). Other private hotels have opened nearby. Some have their own dolphins that can be fed, petted or taken for a ride.

Whale Hotel

Photo 34: The Hakugei (White Whale) Hotel, owned by the town of Taiji, was built near the Whale Museum as part of Taiji’s effort to develop tourism around its whaling tradition.

Uncooked Whale

Photo 35a: For most of its history, the Hakugei (White Whale) Hotel has featured whale in its dinner plan. Raw whale meat and veggies being cooked at the table in 2009.

Cooked Whale Meat

Photo 35b: Cooked whale meat.

The end of commercial whaling brought Taiji whalers back home, and back to coastal whaling. Initially, they concentrated on pilot whales and later smaller dolphins. Their ‘dolphin-drive hunting’ method requires several boats working together. They position themselves into a semicircle around a pod of dolphins, and then drive the pod into the cove by banging on metal rods. Because of their echolocation, dolphins are very sensitive to the noise. Once in the cove, smaller boats close the mouth of the cove with nets. A few of the younger dolphins are pulled aside for sale to aquariums, which provides the main income from these hunts. The rest are slaughtered, primarily for their meat. Images of this slaughter drew the attention of anti-whalers from around the world. Eventually, ‘The Cove’, released in 2009, brought these images to the rest of the world and earned an Oscar for best documentary.

Taiji After ‘The Cove’

Anti-whalers have been a fixture in Taiji during the last several whaling seasons, September through February. Members of the Ocean Preservation Society (the people responsible for ‘The Cove’) arrived the first week of September 2011, led by Ric O’Barry, the one time trainer of ‘Flipper’. Sea Shepherd members also spent the season in town. Two members were on the beach of the cove when we walked by at the end of March 2012 (Photo 36).

Sea Shepherd

Photo 36: Two members of the Sea Shepherd crew on the beach of the cove, Taiji.

The town has set up a temporary police box across the street from the cove, with additional police positioned there to keep order. I walked back and forth here several times. We even went looking for shells in the cove, but were never approached by police or anyone else (Photo 37). In fact, people greeted me politely throughout the town. We happened to visit the port on Sunday during a festival, and were offered free lobster soup, along with the rest of the town visitors (Photo 38).

At the Cove

Photo 37: A beautiful day at the cove, Taiji. Ami, Marina and I like to go shelling here, in the off-season.

Lobster Soup

Photo 38: Enjoying a bowl of lobster soup on the dock of Taiji’s port. Once a month the town fishermen hold a public fish auction and festival here, and hand out soup free to all visitors.

It has been a difficult time for the whalers and their families in Taiji. At least some of them have gone through a period of self-reflection and prayer in response to the hate-filled mail and visitors that have rained upon them. The two NHK films suggest that, after this time of reflection, they will continue to be whalers. I did note, however, that the town’s whale hotel no longer served whale with its basic dinner. It had to be ordered.

Final Notes on Whaling

The whaling season in Wada Town, Chiba Prefecture, began June 20, 2012. These whalers target Baird’s beaked whales, Berardius bairdii. A typhoon and subsequent bad weather limited the hunt in June. On July 3rd, the first two whales were landed. The next day, Mr. Yosinori Shoji, President of Gaibo Hogei Corporation, LTD, held a public flensing and feast of the first whale for the local 5th grade students – part of his annual ‘Whale School’. Their July 4th feast included watermelon along with the deep-fried whale meat.

The International Whaling Commission completed their annual meeting on Friday, July 6, 2012. As usual, the IWC was strongly divided between those nations that want to return to whaling, and those that do not. The IWC did approve renewals to hunt bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) by America and Russia, and humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliea) by St. Vincent and the Grenadines (in the Caribbean Sea). However, it refused to grant permission to Japan for small-scale whaling by coastal communities (e.g. Taiji and Wada). The IWC noted that the greatest threats to whales today come from bycatch, ship strikes, chemical and noise pollution (including gas exploration), and the effects of climate change – particularly in the Arctic.

Over this last year, I asked several people in Japan about their thoughts on whaling. It is a difficult subject to discuss, especially after ‘The Cove’. I asked about whaling as a side note in the course of other conversation, and as politely as possible. In general, the people I spoke with considered whale a traditional food, even though most rarely or never ate it. Everyone agreed that any whaling should be sustainable. However, what was pointed out to me repeatedly was the sense of hypocrisy on the part of the west, and particularly America.

Many people were disturbed by America’s response to global warming; America is responsible for 25% of all the anthropogenic (generated by humans) greenhouse gases of the last century, yet America was the only country that refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. Climate change threatens whales and other marine mammals, as well as the rest of life on Planet Earth.

Tuna fishing in the Eastern Tropical Pacific, primarily for the American market, devastated populations of spotted dolphins (Stenella attenuata) and spinner dolphins (S. longirostris). The ‘dolphin-safe tuna’ program has reduced the number of dolphin mortalities in this fishery. However, these populations have not recovered, possibly due to continued stress of the fishery on female dolphins (i.e. mothers). Even today, the ‘dolphin safe’ fishery kills as many dolphins each year as the Taiji whalers according to the Southwest Fisheries Science Center, NOAA. World-wide, tens of thousands of dolphins and whales are killed each year as bycatch.

Native Americans continue to hunt whales, and Canadians continue to kill baby seals. This spring (2012) the US Navy estimated their sonar and explosive tests may cause up to 8,000 cases of hearing loss and 1,000 deaths to dolphins and whales over the next 5 years.

The people I spoke with could not understand, Why do Americans come to Japan to fight whaling when Americans kill so many whales?

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This entry was posted in Green Efforts, 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.

9 thoughts on “Taiji Town, Whale Town

  1. In USA, There are lots of citizens who Strongly oppose (& try to fight against) the Navy’s MM program & Sonar activity. MANY Of us, Boycott the Tuna market, & I AM APPALLED at the inhumane & barbaric acts from Japan against Marine mammals. Slowly drowning, starving and stabbing dolphins & whales, Not Honorable. Dolphins: They are self aware, Intelligent & compassionate creatures. No one Country Owns The Oceans, Or its inhabitants. Taiji; Good Luck, Youre going to need it. It is 2012, & it is overdue Time to Evolve & Act like Humane Humans. Our world is not indepensible. When will the Human Race figure that fact out?? Pitiful World, That we dont share. 😦 One Word Answer: KARMA. We will all pay for your acts against Nature & Our Planet of ‘Sea’.

  2. It is disappointingly misleading statement from an academic to say “America” was granted rights to hunt bowhead and “Japan” was refused as if it was some nationalist football game … “American 1 Japan 0”.

    The bowhead hunt is for indigenous subsistence whaling in Alaska. if Japan was to restrain itself to indigenous whaling, rather than commercial and industrial whaling, it would be granted it too. Likewise with the Makah Tribe of Washington State. Their right of indigenous whaling is based not on being “American” but a separate nation and a treaty between the two nations. It is as wrong to play the nationalist card as it is for the Japanese to claim whale is a “national” dish. It’s not.

    Whale is the traditional food of whaling villages the world over. Merely because those villages now reside within later “national” political constructions does not make the meat a “national food” culture as claimed by the ICR’s persistent propaganda since the 1970s.

    Personally, I don’t agree with either. It’s all an unnecessary and indulgent cruelty which the use of highly untraditional high velocity guns, internal combustion engines, 4x4s, and synthetic cold and wetwear compounds. It’s conscienceless barbarism belonging to another age which has no place in today’s world and a very poor converter of energy resources.

  3. Dolphin and whale hunting, while traditional, is as outdated as the technologies of the origins of whale hunting. It is also cruel and in humane.

  4. hunting,killing and slaughtering dolphins/whales is barberic…these mammels have awarness..they feel..they sense…they understand what is happening to them.. the meat is toxit with mercury and in this modern society theire meat is no langer nessesary to survive.. the foodmarkets are loaded with other stuff to eat….. The way that the dolphins are being killed is very hostile and brutal…out of proporsion…..Instead of killing cove.. Taiji could be a marvelous place for tourisme and lots of people could find work then….but instead chosing for love and peace and beauty they chose for hate and violence…

  5. Taiji é a cidade do Japão mais odiada do mundo, não é nada bonito ver esses golfinhos aprisionados nesses cativeiros, são separados brutamente de suas famílias no sofrimentos deles serem treinados para divertir o humano, o massacre aos golfinhos acontece de setembro a março, eles são abordados e encurralados na enseada e ali brutalmente assassinados, o mar vira sangue, o que não entendo é que as pessoas se divertem pra ver os golfinhos fazerem brincadeiras, os coitados só fazem isso porque não tem outra escolha pra continuar lutando pela vida, e o pior as pessoas se alimentarem da carne do sacrifício dos pobres animais que tiveram o azar de passar por Taiji, acompanhe as matanças por la, o mundo esta pedindo pela vida dessas criaturas que não fazem mal algum, são dóceis e inocentes da maldade humana, Taiji realmente é um lugar bonito, deveria ser assim, mas não ali é um palco de horror, carnificina, crueldade deshumana, então é um lugar feio é um campo de extermínio de golfinhos e baleias, não pode ser um lugar bom, banhado pelo sangue de criaturas dóceis!!!

  6. Very nice. I spent time in Japan as well. I lived in Wakayama-ken and visited that same town and whale museum. The whale curry and candy that I bought from the gift shop were past there expiration date and i didn’t realize it until I returned to the states. Keep up the good work. Try the horse sashimi if you get the chance.

    • Although they eat pet trained dolphin when they stop doing tricks, I had no idea they ate their horses .. after they no longer ride well? What other pets do they eat? If elevated toxicity of whales and dolphin has them eating more of their dogs, China does have good deals on bulk dogs. Many are stolen pets with collars, which would make them more enjoyable for Taiji people. Wow ..I don’t think I could do that !! Pretty sure that i could not enjoy the taste of things that once loved, licked, kissed me, or carried me somewhere. If I got stranded in Taiji, I would grow carrots, mushrooms, raise slugs, etc .. so i could be happy and sleep well at night.

      • well, don’t go to europe or south america either, they love horse meat. you should look into the export and import of horse meat around the world. it wasn’t too long ago the US made it illegal to use horse meat or export it for food.

        do be so ethno-centric, just because you don’t do it doesn’t mean other cultures don’t either.

      • A slug is alive just as a dolphin is alive, you deem it easier to eat an animal that is not intelligent, but it is still an animal. This anthropomorphism of deeming animals like monkeys, dolphins, dogs, as “feeling” is merely cheap human emotion, because we also are intelligent. A Buddhist would no sooner eat a slug than a dolphin. Something to think about. The fact that vegetarians somehow think it’s okay to eat “lower” animals is specieist.

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