Japan Defends Dolphin Hunt in Oscar-Winning Cove

The Associated Press

TAIJI, Japan – The Japanese fishing village featured in The Cove, which won an Oscar for best documentary, defended its practice of hunting dolphins Monday as a part of its tradition.

A dolphin demonstrates a flip at a dolphin pool in Taiji, southwestern Japan, where visitors can play with the animals Monday, March 8, 2010. The Japanese fishing village featured in "The Cove," which won an Oscar for best documentary, defended Monday its practice of hunting dolphins as a part of its tradition. Residents of this remote village nestled on the rocky coast expressed disgust at the covertly filmed movie, which they said distorted the truth, though few acknowledged seeing it in its entirety. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)

The covertly filmed movie, which mixes stunning underwater shots of gliding dolphins with grisly footage of their slaughter, also claims that dolphin meat is laden with toxic mercury.

Residents of this remote village nestled on the rocky coast of southwestern Japan expressed disgust at the film, which they said distorted the truth, though few acknowledged seeing it in its entirety.

The mayor’s office handed out a statement that said Taiji’s dolphin hunt is lawful and argued that the movie contained statements that were not based on science. Otherwise, most town officials refused to talk.

“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.”

Director Louie Psihoyos said The Cove isn’t meant to bash Japan but that it is “a love letter to the Japanese people.”

“Our hope is the Japanese people will see this film and decide themselves whether animals should be used for meat and for entertainment,” Psihoyos said backstage after receiving the Oscar at the Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles.

The town of Taiji kills about 2,000 dolphins every year for their meat. Some are captured and sold to aquariums.

The Japanese government, which allows about 19,000 dolphins to be killed each year, acknowledges that dolphin meat is contaminated with mercury, but denies it’s dangerous unless consumed in huge quantities.

In September, amid an international outcry following the screening of the movie abroad, villagers released several dozen dolphins that had been caught. But locals say they will continue with the hunt.

The movie 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.

Still, most Japanese don’t know about the annual dolphin hunt, and dolphin meat is hardly eaten in Japan.

Takeshi Kato, president of Unplugged in Tokyo, which is distributing the film in Japan, said the faces of dozens of Taiji residents are being blurred out for the Japan version of The Cove to ward off possible lawsuits under Japanese law that protects privacy.

“Our purpose is not to attack the people of Taiji,” he said.

“If this movie can serve as an opportunity for people to find out, it would be great,” he told The Associated Press Monday.

He said he hopes the film will help open the debate in Japan on preserving nature, including dolphins and whales.

“Receiving the top award in the movie industry will work as a big plus for our efforts to show this movie in Japan,” he said.

Two Japanese who appear in the film — a local councilman and a scientist based in northern Japan — expressed disappointment in how they were portrayed in the film, and said they were interviewed under false pretenses. Both say they have asked the filmmakers to remove footage of them from the movie.

Psihoyos was unable to get permission to access the cove where the dolphins are killed. Fishermen blocked it with barbed wire and fences. So he and his film team secretly broke into the restricted area — which is in a national park — at night to set up cameras that capture the slaughter.

The movie’s star is Ric O’Barry, the dolphin trainer for the 1960s Flipper TV show, who over the last decades has been campaigning for the release of dolphins around the world from captivity.

Various numbers in the film such as mercury levels in dolphin meat are also being contested. In the Japanese version, words that show up as subtitles are being added at the end of the movie to tell viewers that research may produce various results.

Japanese government officials also 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 Foreign Ministry. “A film about slaughtering cows or pigs might also be unwelcome to workers in that industry.”