Last week, the annual slaughter of dolphins in Taiji hit the Western news media. At around this time every year, fishermen in a small town in southeast Japan round up a couple of hundred dolphins and sell some of them to marine parks and aquariums around world. The rest are stabbed to death for food. It’s a good story in that it is spectacularly nasty – the water off of Taiji looks like one of the plagues of Egypt for a day or two.
Naturally, the event has become an annual field day for the more grasping classes of media ghouls who either need to boost their flagging public profiles, like Yoko Ohno, or solicit money from donors, like Sea Shepherd. The American ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy, yes, one of those Kennedys, even got into the circle jerk when she condemned the killing on Twitter. Apparently American diplomacy in the East can’t handle anything more complex than 140 characters. On a lower level, the usual subjects have filled my FB feed with impassioned condemnations of this barbarity, holding their “Like” buttons toward the digital heavens and proclaiming their undying devotion to self-righteousness.
Alright. That’s the compulsory recap. Now I’m going to ask something of you. It’s not going to be easy, but please try: let’s have a long, hard think about dolphin conservation and Taiji.
We can start by getting this out of the way: we need to protect dolphins. As denizens of the wealthiest and most educated societies that have ever existed on this earth, (and surfers on top of that) one of our highest purposes is the preservation of the environment and some of the more majestic animals living in it. Dolphins must surely be included in this pantheon of creatures.
If you believe this – and I seriously do – then you must also accept the following: dolphins as a species will not be saved by taking a small group of humble fishermen and publicly flaggelating them in the media. The only thing this really does is polarize the issue while helping to increase the unprecedented levels of Western eco-poseur self-satisfaction that are already clogging our atmosphere and obscuring any real discussion of why people kill dolphins in the first place.
So why would anyone kill a dolphin? Especially considering that they don’t need to eat them and that their flesh is so full of mercury it’s poisonous, anyway. We can discard the implication hinted at by many in the Western media that the fisherman are simply nefarious or inhuman. I know that’s easy to believe because, well, they’re Asian and you can never really tell what an Asian person is thinking. It’s okay, I feel like that sometimes too, and I’m half Asian. But it’s also ridiculous – a filthy suggestion blithely made to play on all of our worst fears about people who don’t look like us.
We should also discard the claim, often advanced by Japanese, that it’s about tradition. This is a dissimulation, a bit like saying hunting wild boar is part of American culture. It is, but only in some places and not in many. Killing dolphins, per sé, is no longer embraced by many Japanese. What is part of their cultural, and indeed a part of every culture in the world that is worthy of its name, is a deeply ingrained aversion to being told how you can and cannot behave by people whose moral compass is as skewed and arbitrary as that of Animal Planet viewers. So it is not cultural change that grates, it is coerced cultural change. In fact Japan has long been home to a cultural more willing to change, and change drastically, than perhaps any other in the world, but usually only when they saw a societal, i.e., monetary benefit in it.
Wealth in Japan, as in most places in the world, is concentrated in the cities. In our age of increasing urban growth, the small, isolated towns that once subsisted off fishing are withering. They have few factories, not much farming, poor educational resources, and generally very little to offer entrepreneurs who might want to invest in a place. The only thing many are left with, then, is the sea, the only industry they have access to is fishing.
The third theory on Taiji’s dolphin hunt is that, on top of innate inhumanity and tradition, it is based on greed. That’s correct in that there is money involved, but incorrect in that there isn’t much involved. I base this assumption on a set of loose numbers I read on the Huffington Post: live dolphins fetch around $3 million when sold to marine parks and aquariums around the world – yes, probably some that you have gone to. For the meat, they are looking at another twenty grand, perhaps. So dolphin hunting is, technically, a “multimillion dollar” industry as so many news outlets have alleged, but only in the most pedantic sense. You can’t even get a house with a sea view in Orange county for that kind of money. You can’t get much in Japan with it either. If all that money is divided up and put back into the community, which it won’t be, that’s about a thousand bucks for each person currently living in Taiji.
The fact that no one is getting rich is evidenced in the hunt itself. If these people were really rolling in dolphin-blood money, wouldn’t they buy better boats? Wouldn’t they come up with a better way to kill dolphins than having to stab them to death? Wouldn’t they at least hire a decent PR company to keep them out of the media every damn year? I mean, Bashar al-Assad hired the same people that worked with the Clintons, and they got him into Vogue magazine about six months before he gassed his own people. If you had Clinton money, you could spin it to make people think that God himself ordered the dolphin hunt.
What we are left with then, is a very uncomfortable thing: not an atrocity perpetrated by greedy Japanese millionaires, not an atrocity perpetrated by slanty-eyed monsters who are so bent on preserving tradition that they are willing to slaughter intelligent creatures, but an atrocity committed by people with few other real options than to commit atrocities in order to make enough living to put food on their plates and roofs over their heads. You can choose to look at this as a story of good vs evil – the enlightened West teaming up with dolphins against the benighted East. But I prefer to see it as a dual tragedy: first, that dolphins are being killed, and second that other humans find themselves in an economic situation that makes dolphin killing a good option. Maybe you can condemn people like that, but I can’t – I won’t. If you ask me to side with dolphins or humans, I will choose humans every time.
I was in a town in Japan not too different from Taiji a few years ago. It was called Onagawa, and it’s where my father was raised and his father before him. Most were associated with the fishing industry in one way or another in the same way that generations of men in West Virginia are associated with the coal mines. There simply isn’t much else to be associated with. I say it was called Onagawa because when I was there a few months after the 2011 tsunami, it had been wiped from the map. The entire valley where a town once stood was a field of rubble and stragely precise housing foundations with new grass growing up around them, occasionally interrupted by little markers left by grieving relatives for people who had not made it to higher ground when the waters came. This was not the first time the town had been lost to a tidal wave, and it would not be the last. People were already rebuilding the fishing port and waiting on fishing boats that were to be donated by NGO’s. They would come back to this place of death and destruction because, well, they had nowhere else to go and nothing else to do.
It is hard, I think, for those of us lucky enough to be raised as the appointed Haves of the global economy, to understand what it is to be tied to something not by choice or love, but by circumstance and limited opportunity. Through the strange combination of my heritage, I am perhaps uniquely aware that, but for a few strange twists of fate, I could be poleaxing cetacions for a crust instead of sitting on an aeron chair clicking out words about how lovely they are. If that were the case I can honestly say that I would not have a problem with dolphin slaughter because it would not be a matter of dinner party ethics, it would be a matter of providing for myself. Of course I could opt out – this is not subsistence fishing – but if it were between slaughtering dolphins and making a steady paycheck, I would go with the paycheck.
There is a callousness to this belief, a self-centeredness. But if you want to talk about callousness, if you want to talk about atrocities, then look no further than the gem stones on our wives’ fingers bathed in the blood of child soldiers and laborers. Feel the cloth woven by Bangladeshi garment slaves that sits against our skin. Taste the bananas that were so important to have on our cornflakes we overthrew Central American governments to ensure uninterrupted access to them. Know these things and know that Taiji is peanuts. Do you really think spear-wielding fisherman in jon boats can kill anywhere near the number of cetaceans that global fishing nets do every year? While we post pictures of carcasses on FB, the same boats that stock our fish counters, the ones that put supermarket sushi in the big, open refrigerator cases every day during our lunch breaks, are killing more dolphins every year than pollution and hunting combined.
In our gross, privileged decadence, we are guilty of turning our fellow men into abstractions. Play things whose struggles we delight in judging, not based on shared humanity, but on the capriciousness of whatever fad has us in its grip. Those without the power to make their voices heard on the international stage become the villains of our own demented projections. The seas are dying, so it must be the fault of these wretched fishermen who don’t look like us, don’t speak like us, and refuse to kowtow to our cruel whimsies. Through buck-passing, we subtly absolve ourselves, we cleanse our withered consciences of the modern guilt that has begun to sour our very souls. And yet, as we preach the evils of the rest of the world to the rest of the world, we stand so deeply within the utterly debased status quo that the destruction wrought by our own lifestyles is utterly invisible to us.
If you really want fewer dolphins to die, eat less seafood. Convince your friends to do the same. If the fishermen of Taiji have no moral claim to kill dolphins to make a living, then we certainly have even less claim to kill them in order to be able to eat fresh fish every day of the week. We don’t do it on purpose, sure – but just try to explain that to the dolphins. All that we would have to do is give up what is for many (but not all) of us, a luxury food. The fishermen of Taiji would have to give up the lifeblood of their community. I don’t know whether that makes them better or worse than us, but to ask so much of them while asking so little of ourselves is morally reprehensible.
Of course, even if we did abandon our clear-eating of the oceans, it wouldn’t necessarily make the Japanese stop, but then, this isn’t about ideological imperialism, it’s about saving dolphins, right?
Dolphin killing will eventually peter out in Taiji either because the town will die off or, in a less likely scenario, they will find some other form of industry to sustain themselves. The main difference between their dolphin killing and our dolphin killing is that theirs is finite, and ours will never end. A life in which you can buy cheap shrimp every day of the week at a gigantic supermarket is simply too good to abandon. I’m not an activist, nor do I believe that dolphins or anything in the sea can truly be saved from the slow environmental holocaust that we are wreaking upon it. But I do care about the truth. When the last carcass of the last cetacean floats listlessly to the bottom of a barren, toxic sea, let it be said that we were just as culpable as they, and that we made a big show of doing less when we had to the power to do more.