OCTOBER 9, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 14
edition's table of contents
hunting may stir global outrage, but to this proud Japanese village, it's
a venerable way of life
By TIM LARIMER Taiji
Mitsunori Sakaguchi was frustrated with his job pumping gas in Taiji,
a seaside village on Japan's Pacific coast. Then one day, at the local
aquarium, he sawand pettedsome dolphins. "They were so friendly,"
Sakaguchi says. "I loved the way they sang. It was as if we could understand
each other. It was so relaxing, I decided then I wanted to work out at
That's how Sakaguchi, 33, became
a whaler three years ago. Communing with dolphins seems a curious beginning
for a career hunting whales with harpoon guns. But Sakaguchi, son of a
tuna fisherman, sees no contradiction, as he washes the deck of his employer's
ship Victory after a day at sea. "Of course, I would never kill a dolphin!"
he says. "But whales, well, that's different. It is my business."
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Whale hunting may stir global outrage, but to this proud Japanese village, it's a venerable way of life
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The people of Taiji think that should be reason enough for letting its
whalers be. Most whaling was banned around the globe in 1986, but Japan
has kept at it, continuing to hunt, with the permission of the International
Whaling Commission, as many as 500 minke whales every year for what Japan
insists are research purposes. Antiwhaling activists contend this "research"counting
whales and analyzing the contents of their stomachsis a sham, an
attempt to justify what Japan really wants to doincrease commercial
whaling. Meat from the research expeditions is, in fact, sold on the market,
as required by the IWC. Japanese whalers also hunt, legally, two other
species, pilot and Baird's, which are not at risk of extinction. But recently
Japan raised the stakes, defying the IWC and announcing that its whalers
would catch a small number of two varietiessperm and Bryde'sthat
are endangered. Washington protested, and in September, President Clinton
barred Japanese fishermen from U.S. waters.
This is obviously sensitive stuff to the 4,000 residents of Taiji, 450
km southwest of Tokyo. "To me it is strange that Americans hunt deer,"
says Tsukasa Isone, 42, captain of the Victory. "But I don't tell Americans
not to kill deer. Why should they tell us not to eat whale?"
Could the answer be because some cetacean species may be wiped out? Isone
insists that there are plenty of whales and catching a few more will not
imperil entire species. Says Yoshifumi Kai, manager of a co-op that owns
a whaling vessel: "We're not stupid. If we catch too many, we will cut
our own throats." Besides, whalers say, unchecked whale populations eat
too many fish, creating ecological imbalances. That's the rationale Japan's
government uses: Killing whales aids the environment.
Left unsaid is the fact that limiting the catch limits whalers' income.
A whaler makes $75,000 a year on average, three times as much as a regular
fisherman does. Of course, there are just 40 or so whalers left in Taiji.
Two craft prowl the waters from May to October; they have Japanese government
permission to shoot whales with harpoons. Then in October, herders take
over. Fifteen boats use nets to trap the whales and drag them into a bay,
where whalers plunge harpoons into their flesh. It's so bloody that whalers
try to keep secret when and where they corral the whales. "Talking about
this makes me nervous," says Taiji's mayor, Setsuo Hamanaka, 71.
In the past, whalers didn't have to hide. In Taiji, they were the town's
idols. Until 1987, some 400 of them would leave wives and children every
fall for a six-month voyage to the Antarctic to hunt blue and sperm whales.
"Biggest one we got was 28 m long," recalls Shimasaburo Hamaii, 76, who
harpooned up to 20 whales a day. "As kids, we all drew pictures of whaling
ships," says Arata Wada, 52, the town's postmaster. "We wanted to be gunners
like Mr. Hamaii." The young dreamers were unperturbed by the perils, such
as the 1878 storm that capsized the town's fleet of 30 boats, killing
111 Taiji men.
But the sons didn't have to be whalers, because their fathers made enough
money to send them to college. Hamaii's youngest son, for one, is a currency
trader in Tokyo. Today Taiji is hoping to profit from whales in another
way: tourism. Everything from manhole covers to signs in the town hall
is decorated with the cetaceans. Whale meat is the featured cuisine. SautEed,
roasted or raw, it tastes more like beef than fish. Says Takeshi Saiga,
director of the town's whale museum: "Me, I love whale meat, but my job
is to show people how cute these whales are." He may be succeeding too
well. "The young people, they say, 'Oh, they're so cute, how can you kill
them?'" Who knows? Taiji may yet develop a different kind of whale culture.
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