Anyone seeing the Oscar-winning documentary The Cove (2009) or various images of dolphin fishing in the Japanese town of Taiji must have felt a natural cringe. Taiji fishermen drive beautiful dolphins into a cove and heartlessly kill those mammals. Due to the large amount of shed blood, the color of the blue ocean turns into dark red. This image alone can make any of us who have grown up watching Flipper, or even the more recent Dolphin Tale (2011), an immediate empathizer of Ambassador Caroline Kennedy’s comment of the “inhumane” practice of the Taiji dolphin fishing. Or would it?
The emotional outcome of gruesome images is always strong, perhaps too strong. It sometimes sways our rational sense and moves us to do many inappropriate things. Regarding this issue of the ongoing dolphin cull, we have seen some obscene and violent comments against the Japanese people as a whole. Some have initially voiced their former love for the nation, but expressed their current hatred because of the continued “inhumane” practices of killing “intelligent creatures.” Others have simply expressed their antipathy toward Japan with vitriolic words. Even though a natural reaction from the above-mentioned gruesome images might rightly be that of anger and disappointment, we as sensible beings ought not to be moved immediately to hateful actions or words. Let us then take a bit of time to put things into perspective and reason together regarding the issue of Taiji’s dolphin hunts.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe just on January 24 voiced his support for the dolphin fishing in Taiji. He expressed that the practice in Taiji is a historical tradition, so no one has a right to infringe on others’ culture and traditional practices. Personally, I don’t think PM Abe’s words reach those who are concerned with the inhumane practice of dolphin fishing. By simply saying a certain practice is traditional, its right and legitimacy cannot be established in this global age.
Before fiercely condemning the practice of dolphin fishing, it ought to be asked why the people in the town of Taiji continue to do this in spite of all-around oppositions. The reason is not that difficult to understand. They are fishing dolphins not because they are miserably wretched people who gain pleasure out of killing highly intelligent creatures, but because they simply need to sustain their life. The town of Taiji is a very old place, once prosperous with whaling, which goes back as far as the late seventeenth century. The town thrived until the wide-scale ban of whaling by the International Whaling Commission (IWC). Since 1988, the town stopped fishing for most whales, except for the ones allowed by the international regulation. In order to supplement the income, the town started to fish dolphins in 1969.
According to a report made in 2010, only 200 people actually serve at the fishery in Taiji. They do fish other species, but if they cannot fish for dolphins or whales allowed by the international regulation, their income would only be around 2,000,000 yen (about 20,000 USD). It definitely is not enough to sustain, not to mention prosper. Some have argued that the government should compensate the income of the Taiji fishermen if they stop hunting dolphins. This argument is simply oblivious to the moral and psychological effect of permanently depending on governmental support.
The reality is that Japan, by large, is not economically dependent on dolphin fishing any more than Norway, Denmark, or Solomon Islands, which continue the practice even today. It is only a fraction of Japanese people who fish dolphins. Furthermore, the only reason for dolphin fishing as we have seen is that they needed it financially. Otherwise, they cannot sustain themselves. So I must ask, does any one of us have a right to prohibit dolphin fishing, which is banned neither by international or domestic regulations, so that the fishermen in Taiji should bear near-poverty and an insecure lifestyle?
Am I saying that fishing for dolphins has no moral consequence? Of course it has! I would even go as far as to say that human existence as a whole is filled with innumerable moral consequences. Japanese people are particularly aware of human sinfulness regarding consuming other creatures, perhaps due to its animistic and Buddhistic background. Because of this, many Japanese still have not forgotten to thank nature and the creatures that sustain our daily lives. Human beings, so long as they live on this earth, will continue to consume other lives, whether they are plants, fish, birds, mammals, or even dolphins. If anything is inhumane, our human life is paradoxically inhumane. It is therefore important to realize that our existence depends on other creatures’ lives, so we must all be thankful for the loss. But if the human life and its basic rights (which include freedom and prosperity) are threatened because of our love for other creatures, I must say that the order of morality is deeply confused. We should not hinder anyone’s rights for sustenance and to lead prosperous lives.
Again, it is important to remember dolphin hunting is not widespread in Japan, nor does the government actively inculcate it. It is also important to remember that the fishing in Taiji does not destroy the environment by accelerating the extinction of any specie. The very reason for their commitment to dolphin fishing is to add to their already rather modest income. As we deeply think about these aspects of dolphin fishing in Taiji, let us reason calmly and sensibly.