In 2009, a spectacular documentary film about the small village of Taiji located in the Wakayama Prefecture and some 400 miles outside of Tokyo, Japan uncovered a startling generational practice that many Westerners were unaware of: its annual rounding up and killing of dolphins.
The Cove came to light by way of filmmaker Louis Psihoyos. Partnering with former dolphin trainer Ric O’Barry and the Ocean Preservation Society, the team set out to create an expose documentary that showed what appears to be inhumane practices in the brutal hunting and killing of dolphins. When the film debuted, animal rights activists and concerned citizens were outraged at its gruesome and often unsettling acts of slaughter. In fact, the film sparked so much international tension and ultimately conversations that two counter-documentaries debuted in 2016 in hopes that it would help outsiders understand the practice as deeply ancestral in origin and not brutal in ruthless fashion.
Consequently, the film shined a light on a community of tight-knit fishermen who had practiced the sport for survival, passed down from generations past and viewed the hunt as a livelihood to a humble community. As told by many locals, the people of Taiji were not looking to bring attention to their otherwise remote destination, but attention along with condemnation did in fact ensue. Nine years have passed since the movie took home an Academy Award for Best Documentary Film. As we look back and reflect on what it exposed as well as what things are like today, some surprising truths were revealed.
About the Film
Without spoiling the entire film, its premise focuses on the seemingly cruel depiction of seasonal hunting of both dolphins and whales as Japan is touted as a pro-whale hunting nation. As many have to come to understand, dolphins are relational creatures, relying on sounds to communicate to one another. During hunting season, fishermen in Taiji bang loudly against their boats, confusing the animals and ultimately luring them into a cove where they are trapped and slaughtered. As many as 23,000 dolphins are allegedly speared to death each year literally turning the tides crimson, the bloody waters surrounding the village of Taiji. Throughout the film, chuckles are heard before a non-immediate death to what many Westerners have come to know dolphins as: intelligent, gentle creatures whose compassionate and jovial dispositions make them a favorite among animal lovers.
Critics would go on to argue that the film does little more than add shock value to an already open secret. After all, livestock are subjected to a similar fate, often slaughtered in despicable ways in an industry that profits billions of dollars and contributes significantly to the world’s GDP. So, why all of the fuss for dolphins?
It is precisely this reason that Japanese and other proponents of the practice argue. Viewing the sport from face value demeans the real role behind the age old tradition. Historical heritage dating back some 400 years tells us that the tradition was carried out as dolphins and whales were a reliable source of food and commodity. During the days before modern refrigeration, harsh weather often meant hunting would cease. To maintain an ample food supply, whales and dolphins were killed then preserved with salt for people to feast on for months at a time. To ensure the survival of the townspeople, the mammal’s meat was not only used for food, but sometimes the animals were kept alive and trained then sold to circuses or other live show associations whereby people paid money to watch the creatures ‘in action.’ Valuing silence over argument, the Taiji fishermen who participate in the hunting practice finally broke their silence years after the film and addressed the media standing firmly by and even defending their tradition.
One of the fishermen argued, “just look around you….if we didn’t make a living from the sea, there would be nothing left. People keep telling us to stop whaling and find another way to earn a living. But what on earth would we do instead?” The hunt is annually practiced from September through April each year.
Where Do We Go From Here
While there have been some interactions between the locals of Taiji and activists, much is left to be resolved. Taiji insists that their practices have changed as influenced by the film. Fishermen insist that they now use a more humane style of killing, ensuring that the suffering of dolphins is lessened. For some, this isn’t enough and while uncomfortable with the constant glare of the world, the town has also relented and allowed continual filming of their hunting practices. In response, activists and other groups argue that in a world where alternatives abound there is no reason to carry on with such routine brutality. Each autumn season, activists descend onto the tiny town in protest while Taiji people are quick to defend against the practice and also highlight what they say is a much broader issue: globalism vs. localism.
For more information about the Taiji people and how this important documentary has changed their lives, have a look at the recent The Guardian article where the Taiji defend and explain their practice in greater detail.