TAIJI, Wakayama (AP) -- The gala crowd in Los Angeles cheered as "The Cove" won the best documentary Oscar with its grisly portrayal of dolphin hunting. Half a world away, residents of the small Japanese village shown in the film abhorred the attention and said it won't end their centuries-old tradition.

Captain Paul Watson: The residents of Taiji have the arrogance to state that the rest of the world is wrong and they are right. The conservation movement will never back down from defending the lives of dolphins from the barbaric savagery of the Taiji fishermen.

In Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture, residents gathered in whale eateries with names like "Tail" and rolled their eyes Monday when told of Oscar laurels for the film, which they see as yet another biased foreign take on their culture.

Captain Paul Watson: What is biased about depicting the brutal killing of dolphins? It seems that the threat of mercury poisoning does not seem to bother them much. It must have been humiliating to see the crowd cheer for a film that exposes their barbaric crimes to the world.

The village of 3,500 people has been hunting dolphins and whales since the early 1600s. It calls itself "Whale Town" and has a massive pair of whale statues looming over the main road. "The Cove" refers to Taiji and its dolphin fishing as "a little town with a really big secret," but local councilman Hisato Ryono said there is nothing to hide.

Captain Paul Watson: Along the Ivory and Slave Coast of Africa they were capturing and selling slaves from way before 1600. The whalers of Cape Cod were killing whales from the 1600’s. Tradition is just an excuse for perpetuating barbaric, archaic practices. The reference to the whale statutes reminds me of the stone heads of Rapa Nui where they cut down the last tree and collapsed their own society just to continue a destructive environmental “tradition.”  Of course, there is nothing to hide now. Thanks to Sea Shepherd’s efforts in 2003 and the release of “The Cove” in 2009, there are no more secrets in Taiji to hide. The truth about Taiji now stands naked to the entire world. 

"Everyone around here knows about it. The water nearby turns red during the hunt. The actual killing is done in a concealed area because it is unpleasant to look at, as is true of killing cows or pigs or any other animal," said Ryono, who says he was tricked into appearing in the film.

Captain Paul Watson: The dolphin killers constantly compare their slaughter to pigs and cows. Yet there is no abattoir in the world that would condone the abject cruelty of the Taiji slaughter where the animals are struck with clubs, speared in different areas of their body repeatedly, slashed and drowned, choking on their own blood. This is like comparing a county jail cell to a Nazi concentration camp. I’m sure the German prison guards probably said, “what’s the fuss, you have people in prison also?” The area where the killing takes place was open to the public until the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society exposed the slaughter in October 2003. I wonder how Ryono was “tricked” into appearing in the film? Everyone in Taiji knew that the film crew was there.

"This is a close-knit group of fishermen. The more they feel squeezed, the more they will close off to outsiders. They won't stop this hunt because of such pressure," Ryono said.

Captain Paul Watson: And they would never have stopped without the pressure. The logic is that activism to expose and oppose the slaughter of the dolphins makes more logical sense than doing nothing. At least with activism there is a chance of success. By doing nothing there is no chance of success. 

The Japanese government allows about 19,000 dolphins to be killed each year.
Taiji hunts about 2,000 dolphins every year for meat -- less than other places -- but is singled out in part because of its "oikomi" method of herding and killing them near the shore.

Captain Paul Watson: We opposed and shut down the dolphin slaughter on Iki Island, Japan and we are opposing the dolphin slaughter in Futo, Japan. Taiji however is the best place to illustrate the cruelty and the horror of the dolphin death drive.

Dolphins, in addition to being food, are also recognized in Taiji as crowd pleasers with their playful nature, leading to odd contrasts. Taiji fishermen capture some to sell to aquariums, and the area is dotted with ocean cages offering dolphin-bonding sessions. "Dolphin Base" charges 2,000 yen ($22) for a 20-minute session less than half a mile from the cove where hundreds of the animals are stabbed and dragged ashore in the annual hunt.

Captain Paul Watson: The Nazi’s used Jewish slave girls for entertainment while murdering their parents and children. The sheer lack of empathy and incredible ignorance of the Japanese fishermen in Taiji is astounding. They seem to lack any sense of moral shame. Brothels beside gas chambers is very much like swim with dolphin pools alongside a cove running red with the blood of dolphins.

Like most residents of Taiji, the dolphin trainers repeatedly avoided talking to a foreign reporter -- one young woman ran away when asked her opinion. At the nearby Dolphin Resort, a modern hotel complex with its own dolphin pool, manager Kiyo Ikeda agreed to be interviewed, as long as there were no questions about dolphins.

Captain Paul Watson: The residents of Taiji are intimidated by the thugs on the fishing boats. 

"We really don't get many foreign guests at this hotel," she said.

Captain Paul Watson: I wonder why? Most likely foreign visitors don’t find the sadistic slaughter of dolphins to be an attractive tourist venue. 

Many Taiji residents said they would no longer speak to foreign visitors on the record, after years of what they felt were one-sided articles and gory pictures shown out of context.

Captain Paul Watson: I fail to see the other side. That’s like saying a serial killer has the right to justify his crimes. How do you show the stabbing and slashing of a defenseless dolphin “out of context?” In what context would it be acceptable? Is there a certain time or place where it would be documented “in context?”

After the movie won, the town government issued a short news release.

"There are different food traditions within Japan and around the world," the statement read. "It is important to respect and understand regional food cultures, which are based on traditions with long histories."

Captain Paul Watson: This is not a food tradition. The main economic driving force behind the slaughter is to capture a select a few dolphins to sell to aquariums and to butcher the rest. Tradition is no excuse for destroying a species. The Japanese eat hamburgers also, and in fact consume more beef than all of Australia, so to say that their “food culture” depends on dolphins is inaccurate.

The documentary, directed by Louie Psihoyos, follows Ric O'Barry, a trainer for the 1960s "Flipper" TV series who says he became an activist because of a suicidal dolphin in his charge. The film team broke into a restricted area to set up cameras that captured the slaughter.

Captain Paul Watson: The area in question is a National Park and is unlawfully restricted.

The Cove has not yet been released in Japan, but it will start showing here in June at 20 to 30 theaters nationwide. It was shown at the Tokyo International Film Festival in October, where viewers gave it mixed reviews.

Several Japanese who appear in the film, including Ryono the councilman, and Tetsuya Endo, an associate professor at Health Sciences University of Hokkaido, say they were lied to about its subject matter beforehand.

Captain Paul Watson: In Japan, it is a social stigma to be critical of Japanese government or practices. This is hardly surprising that they deny their participation yet they all signed releases, and what they said was what they said. It is unfortunate that they lack the courage to stand by their statements under social duress. 

Endo, clearly angry when reached by telephone Monday, said he is considering legal action.

"I feel that they should have declined the award," he said.

Captain Paul Watson: I doubt Endo will make good on his threat. He does not have much room for complaint. He signed the release and he said what he said. Is he now saying that his scientific opinion expressed in the film is untrue?

Japanese government officials defended the fishermen's right to hunt dolphins and called the film unbalanced.

"There are some countries that eat cows, and there are other countries that eat whales or dolphins," said Yutaka Aoki, fisheries division director at the Foreign Ministry. "A film about slaughtering cows or pigs might also be unwelcome to workers in that industry."

Captain Paul Watson: There are, in fact, many films about slaughtering cows and pigs, but there is no film footage available that even comes close to comparing with the sheer and monstrous way the dolphins of Taiji are slaughtered. If a filmmaker were to expose cruel and sadistic practices in an abattoir, it would be a film that would be noticed. In fact, a couple of years ago, a film was taken covertly of slaughterhouse workers brutalizing chickens. The result was the men were fired. In fact in almost every case where slaughterhouse abuse has been documented, the people responsible were either fired or charged with cruelty. The difference here is that these thugs are given free rein to continue their sadistic behavior by their governments, local and national.

(Mainichi Japan) March 9, 2010