Crustacean Wars

Imagine a public park. Large and lovely, the park contains a great deal of nature for people to enjoy: trees, flowers, bushes, insects, and squirrels and birds. You probably have a park similar to that somewhere near your hometown. Conflicts over utilization of the park do not usually occur, because people understand the general rule, that it is there to use and enjoy communally, but not manipulate or “mine” from. Most people would call this a reasonable rule. If one person, or group of people wanted to start cutting down flowers, trimming branches, or hunting squirrels, for example, it would generally not be accepted.

This metaphor is the strongest argument I can make against Japanese whale hunting in the international waters of the arctic sea. It’s certainly not foolproof: the region under question, the icy waters of the Southern Ocean is not a public park. To challenge the public park analogy, people generally don’t have access to this forbidding sea near Antarctica, so mining whales, in this case, will almost never directly diminish the experience of other individuals. The battle here is mostly conceptual. Anti-whalers argue that whales are intelligent and should not be killed; that the whales are endangered and should be protected; that Japan is violating international law by faking a research program. These claims, the contents of the debate, are debatable. Whether whales should be killed or not is a matter of culture, perception, and opinion; whether certain species are endangered is hotly debated; whether Japan has the right is also open to interpretation (one that may, thankfully, come due to the Australian government’s pursuit of a lawsuit against the whalers). But the image of a public park is easy to imagine if you try; it’s a kind of precedent we can point to when disputes over communal property arise.

The dolphins killed in Taiji, Japan are another matter.

Culture Clash

Japanese nationalists who protested the screening of the Academy award winning documentary The Cove are right about one thing: the film is about a clash of cultures. The clash, however, is not East-West or American-Japanese. Rather, the clash is between those who love and care about dolphins and those who kill dolphins for profit. In more general terms the clash is about preservation vs. exploitation. This clash has been picking up steam since the Industrial Revolution, a time when notions of “preservation” were virtually unknown and seemingly unnecessary. Moreover the clash knows no boundaries, from the redwood forests of California, to the rainforests of Brazil, and even to the remote Arctic seas where the Sea Shepard battles Japanese whalers.

The Cove, directed by National Geographic photographer Louie Psihoyos, is as much about Ric O’Barry’s genuine love for dolphins and his quest to atone for previous sins as it is about the Taiji slaughter. This personal angle makes it compelling for those who sympathize with him and his beef with dolphin slaughters, and problematic for defenders of the slaughter. O’Barry, who trained the dolphins in Flipper, the U.S. TV show of the 1960s, tells about his dramatic awakening after being ‘as ignorant as he could be for as long as he could be.’ One day a Flipper dolphin named Kathy “committed suicide” in his arms by choosing to not come up for air. The next day, distraught about his role in imprisoning and exploiting Kathy, O’Barry was arrested for releasing other dolphins, and his 34 year odyssey as a dolphins-rights activist that would one day lead him to an isolated cove in Wakayama Prefecture Japan had begun.


It’s clear from the start that the documentary’s aim is not to objectively explore whether Taiji’s dolphin slaughters are right or proper, but rather to take and disseminate images of the slaughter to mobilize public opposition to stop it. If the film pretended to adopt the former aim, Japan’s right wing protesters would be right that the film would be hopelessly biased. But in the spirit of Michael Moore (who also must contend with charges of bias from America’s right wing), the filmmakers perceive an injustice and present their case to the public much like a prosecutor would to a judge. Due to this, Japanese nationalists are appealing to the public and attempting to censor the film in Japan.

This sort of “position documentary” is not unheard of in Japan either. The Japanese documentary Atomic Bomb Hiroshima takes a similar approach. The film focuses on the extraordinary damage and suffering the atomic bombings caused while completely ignoring the details that led up to the atomic blast. To most Japanese, and many Westerners, this emphatic condemnation of the use of atomic weaponry might seem fair enough, but one effect is to paint Japan as innocent victim. Would the same right wing factions be troubled by this documentary for its bias? In the same way that Atomic Bomb Hiroshima ignores the causes of World War 2, and Moore ignores insurance company claims in his documentary Sicko, The Cove largely ignores the views of the local fishermen and local officials.

The Cove filmmakers did, however, make an appeal to Taiji city hall to ask permission to do the film, but were, predictably, stonewalled. As the film later explains, protests by Australian surfers and others in the early 2000s ramped up security and secrecy around the Taiji dolphin slaughter. In that sense the film is an expose, a dogged and expensive effort to show the world the way Taiji fishermen slaughter dolphins.

It’s easy to understand what would lead this film crew to take the side of dolphins. As a National Geographic photographer, Psihoyos documents the degradation of oceans; divers Kirk Krack and Mandy Rae swim and commune with dolphins in the open sea; and of course O’Barry has dedicated his life to saving dolphins from slaughter and confinement for objects of human entertainment. To these filmmakers, dolphins are intelligent if not majestic creatures worthy of our awe and respect. To the fishermen the dolphins are a commodity; they make their living by capturing and selling live dolphins (to dolphinariums), or by selling fish and dolphin for human consumption. O’Barry explains that he actually makes an offer to pay the fishermen himself so they will then set the dolphins free, which leads to a shocking response. Taiji fishermen say the capture and slaughter is not about money, but about “pest control.” Thus, they see the dolphins as competitors for limited sea resources. Selling the dolphin meat is merely a byproduct, a way to make a little money after eliminating an ocean competitor. But the real money comes from the more lucrative business of selling live dolphins to Sea World type shows.

The alleged bias also extends to the way the Japanese were portrayed in the film: a bulky bouncer-like man harassing photographers, bureaucrats and scientists speaking stilted English, a fisherman giving the film crew the finger. In one sense, including these clips was fair enough, for they weren’t scripted; Japanese did what they did on film and were exposed for it. On the other hand, if the filmmakers purposely chose footage to make the fishermen and officials as bad as possible, then the criticism might be valid. In the documentary Manufacturing Dissent, Canadians Debbie Melnyk and Rick Caine charge Moore with such a deception in Moore’s Fahrenheit 911. The film shows Moore opening unlocked doors (demonstrating the safety of Canada and relaxed attitude of Canadians), but the filmmakers claim Moore simply cut the numerous examples of locked doors. In the case of The Cove, however, it’s difficult to imagine many scenes of kind and welcoming fishermen being cut in favor of the scenes included, which make some Japanese uncomfortable.

Pro-slaughter individuals in Taiji are certainly not above making a biased, emotional appeal. In a 1994 statement from “the people of Taiji,” the following points are noted:

“Thus, it was a traumatic experience that our values were attacked fiercely by western environmentalists and animal right activists, and the International Whaling Commission (IWC) mercilessly forced us to stop whaling.” And later vow, “No matter how viciously the environmentalists and animal right activists condemn us, we will not give up whaling.”

But is the supposed bias of a “position documentary” really the issue?

Animal Rankings

At one point in The Cove, O’Barry incredulously notes that dolphinarium spectators can actually enjoy the dolphin show while eating dolphin meat. Americans are probably too sentimental, or animal rights groups too vocal, to ever allow this to take place. Because of the ways that dolphins have been incorporated into “untouchable” animal category in the consciousness of most Americans, this fact seems striking. However, it’s not at all difficult to imagine Americans spending time at a tourist ranch, state fair or rodeo while munching on a hamburger, which brings us to another criticism of Japan’s right wing: that Westerners have no problem cruelly slaughtering pigs, cows and chickens, and it is only a cultural mores that define those animals as fair game while putting other animals off limits. This criticism is more difficult to dismiss. Who decides what animals should be killed and for what reasons?

Deer hunting is a good example of reverse sensibility. While Japan struggles with a population unwilling to pick up guns to shoot deers for food (or for “pest control”) America has no problem finding hunters. In fact, for some animals like moose in Vermont a lottery has to be held to limit the number of hunters. But no animal-values analogy will ever work perfectly. Japanese, for example, simply don’t want to hunt, and are not critical of America’s love for hunting.

Some try to articulate principles to rank killability, and the film’s criterion is intelligence. At one point it is even conjectured that dolphins are more intelligent than humans (to which one wonders why they aren’t able, after all this time, to elude the crude tactics of the fishermen who simply pound on metal to confuse the dolphins). This point, however, leaves two issues to be grappled with: just how intelligent are dolphins? (i.e. can humans ever fairly gauge animal intelligence?) and does it matter? Japanese who want to eat whales may not care about their intelligence. Moreover, vegetarians have long maintained that pigs are actually very intelligent, but the American meat-eating public has largely remained unmoved.

But pointing to the intelligence of dolphins is just another rational argument which can be turned on its head or countered in any number of ways. For others it’s just a matter of consciousness. New York Times writer Paul Greenberg explains, “We have come to see the whale not as something we fish for, not as something we farm, but as something we appreciate and maybe empathize with. Instead of expanding our stomachs or our wallets, whales have expanded our consciousness, our very humanity.” In that sense, The Cove is an attempt to raise awareness and consciousness to get more people to think like Greenberg.

While nationalists cling to the tradition argument, the fishermen claim the right to fatten their wallets. Many Westerners, however, would side with the fishermen, including those who trap wild animals to kill them for their fur, Canadian groups that club baby seals in the far northern territories, or for that matter the Faroe islanders in Denmark who have their own version of dolphin slaughter.

Animal Imprisonment

Since the big money is made by selling live dolphins to dolphinariums such as Sea World, the heart of the matter may be the animal trade. The Cove makes the case that dolphins are accustomed to cruising enormous ocean distances and actually suffer from depression in captivity for which they are medicated. In addition, many have died from their confinement. Watching dolphins glide across the sea and dive to the depths makes analogies to cow killing seem facile. The film that deals with the larger issue of animal rights is the 2010 documentary Earthlings. The film spares no abuser or animal life, from factory farms in the U.S., to the ways cows are virtually tortured in India in their journey to become boots and handbags, to the senseless cruelty of bull fighting, rodeos, and puppy farms. Earthlings also contains footage of Taiji’s dolphin slaughter: at one point a live dolphin roped to a truck is dragged on the ground until it bleeds. Later fishermen hack the still gasping dolphin even while schoolchildren walk past the bloody scene.

The Earthling’s main tenet is, if racists and sexists are guilty of objectifying their victims, speciesists do likewise to animals. One can imagine Europeans and Americans of 300 years ago discussing the plight of slaves. Some might have claimed they don’t suffer in the same way “we whites” suffer; others might have wondered whether they were actually human. Now any such notions appear absurd; such views are nothing more than extreme, ugly racism. Can’t the same logic that labels degrading treatment to women as “sexism” and degrading treatment of other races as “racism” lead us to comprehend and be moved by the notion of “speciesism”? A speciesist regards the welfare of his own species above that of other species, and in fact doesn’t take the suffering of other species into consideration, whether the issue is food, clothing, entertainment, or research. If we humans benefit, anything goes.


In early June 2010 three of the 20 or so theaters in Japan scheduled to screen The Cove caved in to right wing protests and decided to pull it. Their stated reason was that the protests would create a disturbance in the neighborhood. But by the end of the month a Japanese court took the step to ensure free speech by barring protesters to assemble in front of theaters, the tactic they used to intimidate theaters and viewers (and also led to the cancellation of several planned university screenings).

In an effort to bridge the dolphin gap, 600 individuals attended a symposium in Tokyo in June to show the film and allow critics to air their grievances with the O’Barry. Besides the complaint that the film was made stealthily, and individuals faces were not blurred, critics also reportedly disputed the facts presented in the documentary, but the NHK article provided no other details. One could imagine that the estimated number of dolphins killed each year, put at 36,000 in the film, is under question. Finally, the critics questioned why voices of locals were not included in the film, apparently missing the irony of the fact fishermen who actively and aggressively tried to keep their actions secret are now protesting that they were not given a chance to tell their side of the story.

Some Japanese nationalists go even farther, demanding censorship because the Cove is “terrorist propaganda.” One such nationalist, “tamagawaboat” charges on his blog “as subjectively as possible” that Sea Sheppard protesters endanger life and property out at sea with tactics like tossing bottles of acid on board or trying to entangle ship propellers with rope. No great effort is made to explain why The Cove, which only utilizes the weapon of communication, is guilty of the Sea Sheppard’s supposed sins.


In the Earthlings documentary about cruelty to animals narrator Joaquin Phoenix states, “We must learn empathy. And see that their life has value because they are alive” while a live dog is being tossed into a garbage truck, soon to be crushed alive. Viewing such cruelty only gives the film’s message more relevance and poignancy. The filmmakers of The Cove hope to move viewers in precisely the same way. Perhaps, instead of confrontation, anti-whalers should make the same sort of appeal.

John Spiri teaches at Tokyo University of Agriculture and technology. He can be reached at: Read other articles by John, or visit John's website.

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  1. Don Hawkins said on December 18th, 2010 at 4:27pm #

    But pointing to the intelligence of dolphins is just another rational argument which can be turned on its head or countered in any number of ways.

    “We must learn empathy. And see that their life has value because they are alive” while a live dog is being tossed into a garbage truck, soon to be crushed alive. John

    To me the killing of whales to not do that is a nobrainer. I wonder on the History Channel as they do interesting things in many way’s a new way of thinking. How about for some reason, there are a couple I can think of, no more drug’s for human consumption not only street drug’s but the little pill’s from those pharmaceutical companies in one day gone and how that would play out.

    Curiously enough, the dolphins had long known of the impending destruction of the planet Earth and had made many attempts to alert mankind of the danger; but most of their communications were misinterpreted as amusing attempts to punch footballs or whistle for tidbits, so they eventually gave up and left the Earth by their own means shortly before the Vogons arrived.

    For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much – the wheel, New York, wars and so on – whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man – for precisely the same reasons.
    — Douglas Adams

    Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar”, every “supreme leader”, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
    — Carl Sagan

    Every corrupt politician anybody see Joseph Isadore Lieberman on TV today or Addison Mitchell “Mitch” McConnell, Jr yesterday Hi Mitch.