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OCTOBER 9, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 14

Where Harpoons Fly
Whale hunting may stir global outrage, but to this proud Japanese village, it's a venerable way of life

Mitsunori Sakaguchi was frustrated with his job pumping gas in Taiji, a seaside village on Japan's Pacific coast. Then one day, at the local aquarium, he saw—and petted—some dolphins. "They were so friendly," Sakaguchi says. "I loved the way they sang. It was as if we could understand each other. It was so relaxing, I decided then I wanted to work out at sea."

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That's how Sakaguchi, 33, became a whaler three years ago. Communing with dolphins seems a curious beginning for a career hunting whales with harpoon guns. But Sakaguchi, son of a tuna fisherman, sees no contradiction, as he washes the deck of his employer's ship Victory after a day at sea. "Of course, I would never kill a dolphin!" he says. "But whales, well, that's different. It is my business."

The people of Taiji think that should be reason enough for letting its whalers be. Most whaling was banned around the globe in 1986, but Japan has kept at it, continuing to hunt, with the permission of the International Whaling Commission, as many as 500 minke whales every year for what Japan insists are research purposes. Antiwhaling activists contend this "research"—counting whales and analyzing the contents of their stomachs—is a sham, an attempt to justify what Japan really wants to do—increase commercial whaling. Meat from the research expeditions is, in fact, sold on the market, as required by the IWC. Japanese whalers also hunt, legally, two other species, pilot and Baird's, which are not at risk of extinction. But recently Japan raised the stakes, defying the IWC and announcing that its whalers would catch a small number of two varieties—sperm and Bryde's—that are endangered. Washington protested, and in September, President Clinton barred Japanese fishermen from U.S. waters.

This is obviously sensitive stuff to the 4,000 residents of Taiji, 450 km southwest of Tokyo. "To me it is strange that Americans hunt deer," says Tsukasa Isone, 42, captain of the Victory. "But I don't tell Americans not to kill deer. Why should they tell us not to eat whale?"

Could the answer be because some cetacean species may be wiped out? Isone insists that there are plenty of whales and catching a few more will not imperil entire species. Says Yoshifumi Kai, manager of a co-op that owns a whaling vessel: "We're not stupid. If we catch too many, we will cut our own throats." Besides, whalers say, unchecked whale populations eat too many fish, creating ecological imbalances. That's the rationale Japan's government uses: Killing whales aids the environment.

Left unsaid is the fact that limiting the catch limits whalers' income. A whaler makes $75,000 a year on average, three times as much as a regular fisherman does. Of course, there are just 40 or so whalers left in Taiji. Two craft prowl the waters from May to October; they have Japanese government permission to shoot whales with harpoons. Then in October, herders take over. Fifteen boats use nets to trap the whales and drag them into a bay, where whalers plunge harpoons into their flesh. It's so bloody that whalers try to keep secret when and where they corral the whales. "Talking about this makes me nervous," says Taiji's mayor, Setsuo Hamanaka, 71.

In the past, whalers didn't have to hide. In Taiji, they were the town's idols. Until 1987, some 400 of them would leave wives and children every fall for a six-month voyage to the Antarctic to hunt blue and sperm whales. "Biggest one we got was 28 m long," recalls Shimasaburo Hamaii, 76, who harpooned up to 20 whales a day. "As kids, we all drew pictures of whaling ships," says Arata Wada, 52, the town's postmaster. "We wanted to be gunners like Mr. Hamaii." The young dreamers were unperturbed by the perils, such as the 1878 storm that capsized the town's fleet of 30 boats, killing 111 Taiji men.

But the sons didn't have to be whalers, because their fathers made enough money to send them to college. Hamaii's youngest son, for one, is a currency trader in Tokyo. Today Taiji is hoping to profit from whales in another way: tourism. Everything from manhole covers to signs in the town hall is decorated with the cetaceans. Whale meat is the featured cuisine. SautEed, roasted or raw, it tastes more like beef than fish. Says Takeshi Saiga, director of the town's whale museum: "Me, I love whale meat, but my job is to show people how cute these whales are." He may be succeeding too well. "The young people, they say, 'Oh, they're so cute, how can you kill them?'" Who knows? Taiji may yet develop a different kind of whale culture.

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