Born into a family of dolphin hunters in Futo, Japan, Izumi Ishii was expected to follow in his father's footsteps. As the dutiful son, he did what was best for his family, but for him, the dolphins' cries were simply too loud.
It's hard to imagine Izumi Ishii ever killing a dolphin. His kind face and beaming smile light up the room. The regret and remorse that he still feels for his former career, is palpable. But many people have forgiven this former dolphin hunter from Futo, even if he is not yet ready to forgive himself.
For those aware of his story, Mr. Ishii is now an adored advocate for the dolphins. For speaking out against his former profession -- despite the cost to himself and his family, Mr. Ishii's sacrifices have not gone unnoticed. He has, and continues to be, a voice in the wilderness and an inspiration for many.
I heard of Mr. Ishii's story a couple of years ago, but I never took the full measure of it until I watched the documentary: When Dolphins Cry. Written and produced by Hardy Jones, a former CBS news director and co-founder of BlueVoice.org, the film documented the more than 30-year fight to end the brutal slaughter of dolphins in Japan.
Mr. Ishii and his father -- Mr. Ishii senior, both appeared in the film. Displaying the knife once used to kill hundreds of dolphins, Ishii senior spoke of how the cetaceans evolved in his mind from "just fish", to having an intelligence on par with human beings.
For Izumi junior, his change of heart was so dramatic, that in 2002 he traveled to the International Whaling Commission's (IWC) annual meeting in Shimonoseki, Japan. Here, under public scrutiny, he announced his intention to cease hunting and urged his fellow dolphin hunters to do the same.
Mr. Ishii spoke that day of change, and amid personal pain he explained his decision. "When fishermen slit the dolphins' throats" he said softly, "they open their eyes wide and then tears come, and as soon as their throats are slit, they open their eyes and they scream."
They were brave words in a country that prides itself on unity, but Mr. Ishii stood by them and still stands by them today. It cost the Ishii family a great deal. They were ostracized and many doors were forever closed in their faces, but their former dolphin hunting boat soon became a whale and dolphin watching vessel.
I spoke with Mr. Ishii through his assistant Kiki Tanaka. Miss Tanaka kindly translated my questions and Mr. Ishii's answers. It has been a tough time recently for the fisherman, unable to find work, Mr. Ishii was at risk of losing his boat.
EB: For how long were you a dolphin hunter?
I. Ishii: Since I was a child, I was watching dolphin hunting at Futo. I started to help drive hunt when I became junior high school student (13 years old). That was normal among fishermen families. Every fisherman family needed hands in the season. So even when we were children, we were asked to help.
In my case, my grandfather was also a dolphin hunter and I was watching him all the time. My task as a teenager was killing dolphins and butchering their meat. I did not like it because I simply preferred to be on the boat and watching what adults were doing.
When I was 27 years old I came back to Futo from Kamakura where I was working at the factory. I was training to become a professional dolphin hunter. I bought my own boat when I was 32 years old. I would say I became a real professional hunter this time. I quit hunting in 1997 when I was 49 years old.
EB: When did you have a change a heart and why?
I. Ishii: It was in 1997. In 1996, Futo caught more than its quota of bottlenose dolphins and caught False Killer Whales. False Killer Whales was not a kind we were allowed to catch. I learned it from some animal rights people. I did not know there was a "quota" rule until then. But once I learned it, I suggested to the Fisherman Union (FU) that we should apologize to the public to be forgiven. Moreover, I was expecting our quotas to be increased at that time by apologizing in public. Up until that moment, I was pro hunting.
But FU people disagreed. They said "Let’s just ignore it ... you should shut up since you have received the money too".
I kept insisting we disclose the fact. One day, I was called to a meeting. There were about 50 people from FU. They said, "Ishii should be ousted from this town, from this union, he should have his fishing license taken away", and I did not want to continue working with them anymore.
As of this day, I stopped talking to anybody in Futo port. But I did not mind it at all. It was rather convenient for me because I did not need to talk to people who I do not want to. Meanwhile, one feeling started growing inside of me. That is my feeling of atonement to the dolphins. And it grew more and more and it was like water was overflowing in a cup.
My feeling does not allow me to continue hunting anymore. And I realized that I had never enjoyed killing dolphins anyway from the beginning. I decided to stop hunting.
EB: How difficult was it for you to attend the IWC meeting and speak up for the dolphins?
I. Ishii: It was not difficult for me at all. I rather felt encouraged because many people wanted to listen to my story. I always felt sorry to the dolphins. I was always saying "I am sorry" and put my hands together in my mind whenever I was killing them. But I must admit it was strange. I was eating their meat while I felt sorry for them.
EB: For many, the speech you gave was courageous. It was clearly difficult for you to speak about it. It's obvious that what you did still bothers you. Have you been able to find peace?
Courtesy Izumi Ishii
A majestic and streamlined Pacific white-sided dolphin. Photographed by Mr. Ishii during one of his dolphin and whale excursions.
I. Ishii: I still have feeling guilty to dolphins. That is why my stance is always opposition to dolphin hunting, but I have been wondering how to make an action. Recently, my feelings toward protecting dolphins is getting stronger and stronger, especially since beginning of this month.
There are still many obstructions for me but I am willing to speak out for dolphins and whales anytime, anywhere, whenever I have a chance. Because my body is made by dolphins' meat and blood. They made me speak for them.
EB: What happened because you spoke out?
I. Ishii: There were two things I noticed that clearly changed. One was that Fishery Agency, Prefecture Fishery Dept. and FU became much more cautious about the quota. They became aware and stuck strictly to the law. As evidence of it, prefecture staff must attend the catch landing and killing scene.
The other is that penalties over this illegal action were made after this incident. I learned that there was no penalty against the illegal action before when the coast guard investigated me. They told me that they could not do anything about this illegal action and let me off. But the next year, 1998, they made new restrictions for this.
EB: You have become such a bright beacon for dolphin lovers because of your change of heart. This change of heart was supported by many recently when people helped to save your boat. Do you realize how appreciated you are?
I. Ishii: I had not really realized how much people had feeling to support me before. But now I can feel it. Recently, I have received over 150 peoples' donation. This made me realize how many people support me. In fact, it doesn’t matter if they donated or not, or the amount they donated of course, I appreciate those who donated to me, but, the point is that now I am feeling many people’s support in various ways and I deeply, deeply appreciate it.
EB: What do you think is the best approach for Westerners to take to help stop the dolphin drives in your country?
I. Ishii: If you come to Japan against dolphin hunting, do not go to Taiji, but please go to other natural dolphin watching places. If you want to protest where you are now, please go to the Embassy or the Consulate in your country.
I never say that I agree with the dolphin hunt, but Taiji people are not criminals. They are simply working for their own life. They catch animals under the given quotas. If you want to protest in Japan, please go to the Fishery Agency in Tokyo.
If I am invited, I am happy to go any country and go to its Embassy or Consulate to plead with them to stop dolphin hunting.
EB: What do you hope for the dolphins and whales in Japan in the future?
I. Ishii: I hope all dolphin hunting and whaling will vanish from this planet.
Mr Ishii almost lost his boat -- the Kohkaimaru, recently. The former dolphin hunting vessel is now used to show people how beautiful whales and dolphins are in their natural habitat.
Just days away from losing his boat, more than $6,000 was donated to Mr. Ishii. Still ostracized by fishermen for being outspoken, it is difficult for him to get work.
Said the former fisherman last month, "As the payment due date became closer, I almost decided to give up on the watching business completely." But many are glad that he didn't.
In the fight for whale and dolphins, Mr. Ishii is a crucial voice within Japan.
Support for Mr. Ishii's enterprise is still ongoing through this event fundraiser established last month on Facebook. All donations so far have been made through PayPal via firstname.lastname@example.org.
Miss Tanaka told me that Izumi Ishii's whale and dolphin tour boat -- the Kohkaimaru, is based out of Futo, just a couple of hours from Tokyo by train.
He is happy to take anybody out to see whales and dolphins she informed me -- even researchers looking to study the islands are welcome, she added. You can contact Miss Tanaka via e-mail for more information on Mr. Ishii's dolphin tours.
"Let's make dolphins the symbol of the ocean," Mr. Ishii says, "We are free."