Sakae Hemmi of Elsa Nature Conservancy in Japan talks about the struggle to educate Japanese citizens on the toxicity of dolphin meat and describes how tackling the dolphin drives from within her country, with a carefully balanced approach.
Sakae Hemmi and her husband Professor Eiji Fujiwara have been involved in conservation for 36 years. Together they formed Elsa Nature Conservancy, an NGO founded in 1976 with the primary mission of persuading their fellow countrymen to cherish and respect all life forms on our planet, particularly whales and dolphins.
It remains a difficult task in a nation of pro-whalers, but Professor Eiji and Sakae, both published authors, continue to press onward and upward. Eiji and Sakae have meticulously documented the killing of cetaceans in their own country for years.
Elsa's progress involves traversing a path of potholes and obstacles. Tackling a fortress of established opinions within their own country, means the conservancy must balance a proactive approach with careful navigation. As a result, Elsa has relied on scientific data and education to change hearts and minds from within. It has been incredibly successful, considering other influences occasionally hinder their progress.
For the longest time, the Japanese media refused to entertain alternate views on the conservation of dolphins and whales, making it difficult for Elsa to gain a foothold.
Digital Journal asked Sakae Hemmi what impact this had on Elsa when it came to spreading their message within Japan.
When we started working to protect dolphins, they were not popular animals in Japan. Little was known about them. First, we had to explain what animals they are. The president of ELSA, Eiji Fujiwara, is a writer, and he published lots of books about conservation and dolphins. I also started writing about dolphins and translated books about dolphins, for example, those written by Horace Dobbs, first. [Dobbs is the founder of International Dolphin Watch (IDW)].
Our messages to protect dolphins and keep dolphins in the wild, sounded new to the publishers, but we could spread our message through our publications.The Japanese media generally couldn't understand them, they were not specifically unkind to us, but we were discouraged by their articles.
However, some media did understand us and gave Eiji a space to write about dolphin conservation and our activities. I think the situation then with the media, was far better than now. At present, the media seems to be interested in only the conflicts between pro-whaling/Taiji fishermen and anti-dolphin/whale killing groups, the Cove Guardians.
When The Cove movie was released in 2009, did this help Elsa or was there an unintended backlash for the group?
I think that The Cove helped to spread important information about the dolphin drive hunt, mercury contamination, and the captivity issue/problems of aquariums displaying wild caught dolphins, to the Japanese public.
As you know, the screening of the film in Japan was very difficult. Even scholars and governmental officials supported banning the screening. Elsa got a permit from Louie Psihoyos to screen The Cove (with revised subtitles done by us, correcting errors) at our symposia, and we discussed the drive hunt of dolphins and contaminated dolphin meat with participants, answering their questions. We showed them correct information/data on the drive hunt and contamination.
Elsa polled 365 participants at the symposia and discussion meetings, and found that 68 percent of respondents said that the dolphin drive hunt in Taiji should be stopped. Only 1 percent found The Cove "boring," 21 percent enjoyed the film and felt it was interesting, 66 percent answered that the film set them thinking about the issues the film described.
However, the Japanese media generally regarded The Cove as a film illegally taken to criticize Japanese food culture. To our surprise, it was misunderstood that Elsa had produced the film and was criticized. This was unintended backlash, but because of The Cove, we could inform more than 300 people of what the drive hunt of dolphins is, and we made them think about important matters the film described, the drive hunt, mercury contamination and captivity issues.
With Elsa being a Japanese conservancy, it has firsthand knowledge of working with the people and within the culture of Japanese society. Have you been contacted by any other organizations currently involved in dolphin campaigns?
No. Not organizations, but individuals contacted me, offering their help. Around 2000, Elsa's messages were supported by many organizations abroad – HSUS, WDCS, Cetacean Society International (CSI), International Dolphin Watch (IDW), Earth Island Institute, BlueVoice. org, Oceancare, Marine Connection, Dolphin Project, International Aid for Korean Animals, Australians for Animals and so on. In the past few years many other organizations joined us to protect dolphins in Japan. Their support continues at present."
Do you sometimes feel as if Japan and its people have been defined by a tiny fraction of its population participating in the dolphin drives? How difficult has this made your mission within your country?
Yes, sometimes I feel so. And I think that it's the same to people in Taiji. Not all Taiji people are pro-dolphin hunting, but a very small number of dolphin hunters made their town infamous. The situation is similar for us, for a small number of group-members from abroad were labeled eco terrorists, and then Elsa, a Japanese group that works with foreign groups, is misunderstood as a radical group working with eco terrorists, and criticized.
The criticism comes from not only Taiji local government but also pro-whaling groups and individuals and even from a small number of Japanese anti-whaling groups and individuals. We have to be always cautious not to be misunderstood.
From an outsider point of view, raising awareness of dolphin conservation issues would be best served with pressure from Japan's own citizens?
Yes I think so, too. We have Japanese colleagues/individuals who cooperate with us to stop the dolphin drives, and organizations that support us behind. However, they are busy working for their own issues and it's difficult for them to expand their activities to dolphin conservation.
When they do, their primary activities receive bad influence and are disturbed, our government always tries to advance whaling and dolphin drives, which is national policy. The anti-drive-hunt-group is apt to be misunderstood to be a radical group by the Japanese public. A group that is working with foreign activists or foreign anti-whaling organizations often becomes a target of criticism. However, I believe that international cooperation is important to stop the drive hunt of dolphins.
Elsa must also tackle the Japanese government's official position which the conservancy describes as "inconsistent" with the historical reality of Taiji. Why does Japan's government insist on promoting this perspective?
Mainly to keep their invested right and their income, I think. The Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR) is like a machine (wheels or cogs) that keeps moving, supported by the income from whaling and subsidies from the government. If the machine stops, many people who are dependent on it just like cogs in the organizational machine, will lose their means of livelihood. I don't deny that whaling WAS once a kind of culture. However, as I wrote in my report, “traditional” whaling actually ended in 1878 after a whaling disaster that decimated the Taiji whaling fleet.
Regular dolphin drive hunts date back only 42 years to 1969 when pilot whales were captured on a large scale for display at the Taiji Whale Museum. The dolphin drive hunt is a part of fisheries authorized and encouraged by our government. Fishermen in Taiji don't want to give up their special privilege to hunt dolphins because they get profits.
Currently only 8.5% of the people in the town of Taiji are employed in the fisheries and only about 100 people at the most depend on whaling or whaling-related activities for their livelihood. Historical records and demographic data do not support the contention that "Taiji is a ‘Whaling Town’ that cannot survive without whaling."
I don't have statistics, but I heard that even in Taiji consumption of dolphin meat is decreasing because of contamination of the meat. As I mentioned above, I think that the dolphin drive is an economic effort by a small town for profit rather than "traditional culture." One more reason for whaling and dolphin hunting, both the central government and the local government of Taiji don't want to yield to both international and domestic anti-whaling groups.
So how can people and conservation groups from other countries best help advance Elsa's work inside Japan?
To continue to be against dolphin drives in a lawful, peaceful, and non-violent way. To send attractive speakers/persuaders to Japan, and if possible, financial aid to Elsa and its colleagues.
The drive hunt of dolphins are carried out for economic reasons. Dolphin drives are part of the fisheries our government permits and encourages. However, if drive hunts give little profit to fishermen, they will hesitate to continue dolphin drives. Their sources of profits are: selling meat of dolphins to consumers or selling live dolphins to the captive industry.
To confine dolphins in a tank is abusive, considering the ecology of dolphins. However, the dark side of the captive industry is not known in Japan and aquariums are regarded as educational facilities. Our experience in 2009 proved that to hold a symposium, screen educational DVDs or films on captive and wild dolphins and discuss them with participants is very effective to educate the Japanese public.
Our research at the symposia in 2009 showed that 69% of participants did not know where aquarium dolphins came from, while 28% of respondents said that they knew. Through those time-taking and costly efforts, it will be possible to change the fixed ideas in Japan. Spreading the results of our efforts by Internet will be very important.
Cooperating with our colleague, we are going to start a project to protect wild dolphins around a small island that belongs to Tokyo, together with local people, including local officials and fishermen. To protect wild dolphins in waters where fishermen are carrying out fisheries is a new and rare attempt in Japan.
It's an attempt for human beings to live together with wild dolphins. Its success has a big meaning. [See: The Toshima Project. Where Dolphins are Revered in Japan].
The funds we receive will be used for our projects to stop the dolphin drive and to protect wild dolphins described above. I understand that each organization/individual has its own strategies to stop the drive hunt.
Just because dolphins travel close to Japan, it does not mean that they belong to Japan, I think.They belong to the ocean as a precious asset of the whole world. That's why I believe that every organization worldwide has the right to work in Taiji/Japan to protect dolphins in the way it believes the best.
I don't want to interfere with other organizations' strategies, even if their approach in Taiji doesn't go well with Japan's current situation. However, I'd like them to know that in Japan a showy performance will provoke the Japanese public, and increase sympathy for fishermen in Taiji. And it makes our activities more difficult.
Activists and conservation groups from other countries insist that they should educate the Japanese public. It is essential for them to know about the Japanese public to succeed in educating the Japanese. I'm afraid that generally speaking, many of the Japanese were already educated to some extent by our government and the Japanese media. It's not easy work to educate the Japanese public.
We need someone (artists, scholars/scientists, famous actors or singers) who are attractive enough to educate the Japanese public. If possible, we'd like them to come to our symposia and talk with participants.
Facts and statistics
Elsa now works alongside US-based not-for profit NGO, BlueVoice.org. Together they consistently and independently test dolphin meat for toxic levels of mercury and other pollutants from mammals killed and sold in Japan. Supported by accurate statistics on the number of dolphins captured in the dolphin drives, Elsa and BlueVoice use their findings to educate the people of Japan on the dangers of eating toxic meat.
Below is a clip taken from Hardy Jones' documentary, When Dolphins Cry, in which Hemmi features prominently. In this particular interview, Hardy talks with the manager of the Shimoda Aquarium near Futo, Japan.
The manager readily admits that money from the sale of captured dolphins is necessary to maintain the dolphin drive slaughters. The story of captivity is covered extensively both within the movie and in Hardy's book, The Voice of the Dolphins available through HardyJonesDolphins.com.
In Digital Journal's second interview with Sakae Hemmi, she reveals how toxic dolphin meat is, and offers figures on the number of dolphins Japan kills per year. Hemmi also discusses why the Japanese government continues to allow dolphin meat to be sold in supermarkets.