The Japanese town of Taiji received unwelcome attention when The Cove, a film following its annual dolphin hunt, won an Oscar. Sayuri (not her real name), who worked as a dolphin trainer in Taiji in the 1990s, gives her reaction to the film.
“When I saw the film I was deeply shocked. What the movie shows is very similar to my own experience of working as a dolphin trainer in Taiji. Only it went further and showed things that even I hadn’t seen.
Before I ever became a dolphin trainer, I had read many books that made me think that keeping dolphins in captivity was bad.
I wondered whether or not I should choose this profession and I decided to temporarily leave the aquarium that I was working at. I set out for Japan’s Ogasawara Islands to meet some wild dolphins.
I was literally blown away when I first saw wild dolphins. Those dolphins were smiling, they were happy. They had an agility that the dolphins in aquariums just didn’t have.
I became worried about the dolphins that I had left behind in the aquarium. I wanted to protect them, to make their lives just a little happier. And so I became a trainer of captive dolphins.
I did my best as a dolphin trainer to devise ways to let the dolphins enjoy their time in the pools by teaching them tricks and trying to give them incentives to have fun.
I used to go to that same cove – the one in the film – every time fishermen would capture a group of bottlenose dolphins. My job was to see if there were any dolphins suitable for captivity in an aquarium.
Once we’d selected a few, we used to separate them into a selection pool and get them onto tanker boats. It was a tremendous sight. It was always a fight for time so we had to move as quickly as possible.
I knew that the dolphins that were not selected for the aquarium would be killed and their meat sold for food. I was constantly at a loss for words about how that made me feel.
All I could see was that a rope was tied around the fin and they were taken away. What I didn’t know was that they get trapped in a small cove and killed in such a violent way, that the ocean would turn red from their blood.
There was one time when I went to the cove every day. It was when a family of killer whales was chosen for the aquarium.
They were anxiously swimming around and with each passing day, the big dorsal fin of the leader of the group would turn over on its side and it would look up with such a sad expression.
I often had the impulse to cut the rope that secured the nets, but I didn’t have the courage.
After I finally left the profession, I travelled around the world to see wild dolphins.
When I was in New Zealand, I was on a bus with people who were organising a petition against dolphin and whale hunting in Japan. I was the only Japanese person on the bus and I felt extremely embarrassed at the time.
I think it is about time that we Japanese people open our eyes to what we are doing and what the rest of the world is asking of us.
I know that whale meat was a common staple a long time ago. It was common in school lunches until the 1970s, for example.
I have heard that there are many places outside Taiji where you can eat whale meat, but I believe it is a seasonal product and I have not often seen it.
Additionally, restaurants that serve whale meat tend to be extremely expensive, so only a very small number of people who have a particular desire for the “best” whale meat go there.
The selling and eating of dolphin meat in Japan is limited to a small number of people. Most people in Japan have no idea that dolphins are being killed for meat. People don’t come across such information in their everyday lives, so they simply do not know about it.
There are people who talk about the hunting being part of our culture. But our culture doesn’t have to be such a terrible culture. There is no longer a necessity for dolphin hunting and the people who are doing it now are simply doing it for profit.
It is just a small group of hard-headed men who continue the practice of dolphin hunting with the excuse of protecting our culture.
Foreigners would often come to Taiji to buy dolphins and I remember them saying that Taiji was the only place in the world where they were able to buy dolphins so easily.
I’m sure that if the dolphin hunting at Taiji were to stop, the captivity of dolphins in aquariums around the world would go down.
I wish that The Cove could be seen by as many Japanese people as possible so that they would understand what is really going on.
I hope dolphin hunting can finally be stopped and peace brought back to the lives of the dolphins.
Sayuri’s comments were translated by Michael Nelson