Saturday, March 13, 2010

"'The Cove' puts Japanese fishermen everywhere on the defense"

More "Cove" stuff from Japan Today:

As soon as the fishermen saw my TV camera, one ran at me, yelling “No!” and pushing me out of the building. Another smeared his rubber fish gutting glove across my lens, while a third threw snow at me with a shovel.

Following the success of “The Cove,” a documentary about the dolphin-hunting village of Taiji that won an Oscar Sunday, Japanese fishermen are particularly sensitive to filming of whaling or dolphin-hunting—or the morning catch of Dall’s porpoise, as I was.

Past media coverage of Taiji, in southwestern Japan, and international opposition to Japan’s whaling have made fishermen involved in hunting dolphins and porpoises wary of the press.

So I knew I would not be welcome last Wednesday morning as I drew up to the snow-buried quayside in Otsuchi—in northern Iwate prefecture, some 840 kilometers northeast of Taiji—to try and capture evidence of the hunt on camera.

Sure enough, lying in an open warehouse on the wharf were rows of about 30-odd carcasses of Dall’s porpoise, with their distinctive black bodies and white bellies.

I had been tipped off about the porpoise hunt in Otsuchi by members of the conservation group Environmental Investigation Agency, and a freelance cameraman hired by the group was with me, showing me around.

Iwate catches the most porpoises of any prefecture in Japan, according to the latest available figures from the fisheries ministry. In 2007, 10,218 porpoises were caught in Iwate, almost a third of which were Dall’s porpoise, which are named after the American naturalist W.H. Dall.

Soon after I was pushed away by the fishermen, the police arrived.

First, two uniformed officers in a patrol car spent 20 minutes checking my ID. Before they had finished, two plainclothes detectives arrived in an unmarked jeep.

One of their first questions: “Are you filming something like ‘The Cove’?”

I explained that I’m a journalist and that I was disappointed that the fishermen shouted down my pleas for an interview: I wanted them to tell the world what they think.

It wasn’t always like this. Seven years ago when I was filming in Taiji, the villagers were generally more willing to talk. One diver who slits the dolphins’ throats offered to line up an interview with the fishermen’s cooperative chief—a request that was ultimately denied.

But ever since “The Cove,” Western TV crews, never popular at whaling villages, are greeted with hostility. Many fishermen believe that such movies feed the popular anti-whaling movement that threatens their culture, way of life and livelihoods.

The irony is most Japanese don’t eat dolphin or porpoise—sea mammals that are related to whales. The meat is not readily available in supermarkets and in fact most Japanese don’t know that some villages hunt these species.

On my second visit to Taiji, in October, “The Cove” effect was already in place. All I got were refusals and shouted insults.

Here in Otsuchi, the police were polite but insistent: “We don’t want you to film any porpoises.”

“Just don’t want you to do anything else that will cause trouble,” one of the detectives said in parting.

Returning to the hotel where I had spent the previous night, I asked to extend my stay. But I was told that the seemingly empty building was “fully booked,” so I checked out. Did they get a call from the police perhaps?

It seemed that more than ever towns like Taiji and Ostuchi were closing ranks to protect traditions they feel are under threat.

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