WASHINGTON, January 22, 2014—After Caroline Kennedy, U.S. Ambassador to Japan, expressed her concerns about that country’s annual dolphin hunt in Taiji on Twitter Saturday, the Japanese government’s defended the practice as an ancient, traditional fishing method. However, questions regarding how traditional the dolphin hunt really is are beginning to surface.
“Deeply concerned by inhumaneness of drive hunt dolphin killing. USG opposes drive hunt fisheries,” wrote U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy on Twitter Saturday. USG refers to the official U.S. government position on the issue.
Joining other famous names opposed to the dolphin hunt, Yoko Ono also published an open letter on to the people of Taiji on her website and took to social media to condemn the dolphin hunt over the weekend.
Brought to infamy by Louis Psihoyos’ 2010 Academy Award-winning documentary “The Cove” (2009), the dolphin hunt is held every year off the coast of the small town of Taiji, Japan.
According to Sea Shepherd, this year’s dolphin hunt, the largest since monitoring began, rounded up 250 dolphins. Of these 52 were captured to be sold to museums and aquariums, about 41 were killed Tuesday for their meat and the rest were driven back to the ocean after four days of starvation, captivity and trauma.
The dolphins selected for slaughter are stabbed with metal rods through their air holes in an effort to sever their spinal chords. Governments, activists and now celebrities and politicians around the world have condemned this method of slaughter and capture as needlessly inhumane.
The dolphins selected for captivity are sold to aquariums in Japan, China, Dubai and other countries. Taiji dolphin imports into the U.S. have been banned since 1993.
Responding to Ambassador Kennedy’s tweet, the Japanese government defended the hunt Monday.
“Dolphin fishing is a form of traditional fishing in our country,” said Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, responding to a question about Ambassador Kennedy’s comment. “We will explain Japan’s position to the American side.”
Japan has long held that the dolphin hunt does not violate any international laws.
Taiji’s fishermen claim the hunt is part of their village tradition and history. They believe that foreigners who eat other kinds of meat are being hypocritical and insensitive to cultural differences.
As Taiji’s dolphin hunt comes under increasing international scrutiny, so does the claim that the hunt is part of a centuries’-long tradition. While the town has a long history of whaling dating back to the 17th century, many are questioning the tradition of dolphin drives.
“This claim of ‘Japanese tradition’ is nonsense,” said Ric O’Barry, director of Earth Island’s Dolphin Project in a press release Monday. “The dolphin drive hunts, according to the town’s own written history, says a couple of drive hunts occurred in 1936 and 1944, but the current series of hunts only began in 1969.”
O’Barry is not alone. Sakae Hemmi of the Elsa Nature Conservancy of Japan requested the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) condemn the dolphin hunt as contrary to the WAZA code of ethics banning the use of inherently inhumane methods of trapping animals for display in captivity.
WAZA responded that it would not take action against the dolphin drives because “in some Japanese communities these drives have been part of the culture for centuries.”
“It was not until 1969 that dolphin drives have been conducted on a large scale,” replied Hemmi in an open letter to Dr. Gerald Dick, Executive Director WAZA. “The history of the dolphin drives spans not so-called 400 years, but a mere 45.”
Hemmi, a longtime opponent of the dolphin hunt, also points out that along with a relatively short history, the dolphin hunt in Taiji has always been held for economic—not cultural—reasons.
“Furthermore, in 1969, the main goal of the dolphin drive was to capture pilot whales as prized showpieces for the Taiji Whale Museum,” writes Hemmi. “In other words, the dolphin drive was purely for profit, having nothing to do with cultural history.”
Commercial whaling has been banned for over 30 years, however, due in large part to opposition from Japan, similar prohibitions do not apply to smaller marine mammals.
Meanwhile, critics of Ambassador Kennedy’s dolphin tweet this weekend stated that the comment could complicate relations between the U.S. and Japan. Others disagreed.
“I salute her for generating discussion on this issue,” said Nancy Snow, a visiting professor of mass communications at Tokyo’s Keio University to USA Today. “CK doesn’t have to agree with every Japanese position. She’s there to represent the U.S. position.”