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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Listening to all sides

Seigi Ishikawa

Sep. 14, 2017

The small coastal town of Taiji in western Japan has found itself the target of international criticism over its annual dolphin hunt. Efforts are underway to build understanding of what has developed as a many-sided issue.

Townsfolk who have made their living hunting whale and dolphin for centuries find themselves at the center of protests after 2009 documentary film The Cove depicted the drive hunt in gory detail. Tensions still run high with a deep-seated antagonism between activists and locals.

A temporary police station is set up near the infamous cove during the hunt season that begins every September. Fishermen chase their prey into the cove for capture.

Boats head out to sea amid tight security, with police on guard around the clock. They are watching for environmental activists staging protests aimed at disrupting the hunt and releasing captured dolphins.

The most extreme protests have been successfully stopped by police, but animal rights activists like Dolphin Project’s Cynthia Fernandez continue to watch the hunt, and upload videos and photos on the web.

“Dolphin Project is concerned for the welfare of dolphins around the world. So we come to really document what happens here, and we can educate people. One of our goals is to really show people about the captive industry,” Fernandez explains.

Taiji Whalers’ Union leader Mitsunori Kobata says while the number of protesters visiting the town has decreased, he remains cautious. “The activists are always trying to take provocative pictures of the hunt,” he says. “We’ve been struggling... to prevent them from presenting it in a shocking and misleading way."

The protests are not limited to Taiji. Once hunting season begins on September 1st each year, demonstrators gather in front of Japanese embassies overseas, a long way from the fishing town that relies on the ocean for its livelihood.

Facing the Pacific, Taiji has no flat land that would make farming viable. Residents have made their living from catching cetaceans for more than 400 years. They comply with national regulations on the number and species of dolphins and whales they can catch in the drive hunt.

Some of the catch is sold to aquariums while the rest is consumed as food. Animal rights activists say the practice is cruel.

Last month, the town of Taiji screened a new movie that has been in production for six years. It presents the story from both perspectives: the activists as well as the local community.

The film, A Whale of a Tale, also shows local festivals and memorial services, depicting a history and culture that is both grateful and respectful of whales and the bounty of the sea.

Director Megumi Sasaki says her film is neither for, or against, whaling, but simply about the life of the town. “This is a human drama, and in a way I think the film is a celebration of humanity. I didn’t want to portray anyone as evil. Members of the Sea Shepherd and the people of Taiji are both right and wrong,” she says. "There's no absolute good or evil in this movie. I think it's a distortion of society to label things as good or evil,” Sasaki continues.

Taiji residents seem pleased with the way the new documentary turned out. “This film definitely marks the first time the life and culture of this town has been portrayed for the outside world, and we’re grateful for that,” said one man at the screening.

“All the people in the film had different viewpoints and different ways of thinking, and that's a very good thing,” offered a female viewer.

Jay Alabaster, an American who now calls Taiji home, appears frequently in the film. He first arrived in 2010 to report on the story for the Associated Press, but decided to stay on to explore the issues facing local residents.

“I fell in love with Taiji,” says Alabaster. “When I first came, people did not understand what I was doing and they were very distrustful. Some people still stay away."

Over the years, Alabaster has won over some of the locals. “He returned to Taiji and settled in the town, and got to know the children here, and the whalers. I really trust him,” says a neighbor.

Alabaster felt there was a severe lack of information coming from the town itself. The environmental activists built a huge campaign, but the town did not have the resources to launch an effective counter argument. Before they knew what was happening, they were being condemned all over the world.

“It's not controversial for people here, but obviously to Westerners the idea of whale meat and locally caught dolphin meat is kind of a controversial subject. So I think people are coming here and taking pictures and posting them with kind of odd messages, and protest messages,” he explains.

Language has proved a major barrier. "It’s difficult for us to communicate in English, so people around the world only see what the environmental activists say,” says Kobata, Whalers’ Union leader.

In a bid to redress the information imbalance, Alabaster helped the Taiji Whale Museum make its exhibits more accessible to visitors from overseas. He used his technological expertise to develop a screen version of a painting that depicts traditional whaling 400 years ago, with an explanation in both Japanese and English.

"I’m not representative of the town and I'm not employed or anything,” he says. "I’m not saying that everything that Taiji says is right, or everything activists say is wrong, or vice versa. I just think that in order for there to be a fair debate on the world stage, there should be equal amounts of information available in English, which happens to be the international language. And for a small town like Taiji, it can be really difficult to put out their viewpoint and talk about their history in a foreign language.”

As Alabaster helps with the message, local government officials are changing their approach. Late last month, Taiji Mayor, Kazutaka Sangen, visited another community that still hunts whales and dolphins, the Danish Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic. He talked with the government there about becoming a sister city to Taiji, and cooperating to gain international understanding.

"We're not trying to antagonize anyone. We do understand the people who tell us not to kill whales. But throughout our history, we have had to do what we’ve had to do to survive, and a part of that history lives on today. All we’re asking for is understanding,” says Sangen.

Alabaster hates to see the town get stuck in the middle of conflict, but he has hope for the future. “I think the conflict between the two sides is really unfortunate,” he says. “I think the activists that come here, a lot of them come here on their own money, on their own time, they are very devoted.

“And on the town side, this is a really friendly beautiful little place, and people are very open and warm and welcome if you give them a chance. So you have these two sides, very special gifted people...and there’s no way for them to kind of meet in the middle.

“There’s the original whaling culture and whaling history but now there’s also this history of protest and two sides trying to meet and it’s becoming a new culture as time goes on,” Alabaster suggests.