In Defense of Japan’s Practice of Killing and Eating Dolphins and Whales

Ric O’Barry is driving around Taiji, Japan, pointing out the various artistic portrayals of dolphins and whales displayed everywhere in the town. “If you didn’t know what went on here, you’d think they love them,” he says. In his 2009 documentary The Cove, O’Barry focuses on the hunting of dolphins in Taiji. What O’Barry doesn’t understand is that the town’s display of dolphins and whales is evidence of their love for the creatures; however, it’s a different kind of love. The Japanese appreciate these animals. The fishermen know that without whales, dolphins and other sea life, they would be out of a job as well as out of food. Japan’s relationship with sea life is different than how we in the U.S. regard sea life. I’ve had two experiences of visiting aquariums in Japan, and both times have given me a glimpse of this difference. As people stand in front of the glass and marvel at the creatures on the other side, in addition to the exclamations of “Kirei! Beautiful!” I’ve also heard many individuals, from young to old, exclaim, “Oishisou! They look delicious!”

It’s unusual to find a traditional Japanese dish that doesn’t include some type of seafood. Japan has been eating fish (including dolphins and whales) since at least the Jomon period (circa 10,000 BCE – circa 300 BCE). Owing to the fact that no part of Japan is more than 115 kilometers from the sea, seafood is historically one of the few commodities that Japan has not needed to import from other countries. Japan’s per capita consumption of marine products in 1978 was 35.5 kilograms, the highest in the world at the time, and this number also accounted for 50% of the animal protein Japanese people ate. But Japan has become even less self-sustaining over time. Because of dense population, overwhelming mountains, and unbearable cold weather (in the case of the northern island Hokkaido), only 12.7% of Japan’s land is suitable for agriculture.1 Japan depends on fishing to feed their country. Unfortunately, in the 1970s countries around the world started adopting 200-mile fishery zones around their coasts, which significantly reduced Japan’s fishing areas as well as, consequently, the amount of seafood available to feed the population. The government has been trying since the 1960s to reclaim land for agricultural purposes as well as developing fish cultures and farms in an effort to keep food supplies at a sufficient level. These efforts, nevertheless, are not leading to great results since aquiculture operations don’t yield many fish or shellfish, causing the resulting products to be sold for high prices to cover the production costs. Japan went from being the top exporter of seafood to the greatest importer  of seafood.2 Currently 63% of annual calorie intake by the Japanese comes from imported food.3

Around the same time that countries were adopting 200-mile fishery zones, the IWC (International Whaling Commission) began supporting the anti-whaling movement, which also put strains on Japan’s fishing. Japan is still a major fishing nation, but because of diminishing ocean fish supplies, difficult environmental conditions, changes in international regulation, and competition from foreign fisheries, Japan is no longer able to catch as many fish. If the current excess population of whales and dolphins were to be killed for food, it would reduce the dependency on other fish, allowing for diversity of the ocean to remain and lessening Japan’s growing dependency on agriculture and meat from land animals.

In spite of this, the popular idea in the U.S. is that killing and eating of dolphins and whales is wrong, and I’d like to examine three possible reasons why.

One argument used in The Cove to counter killing dolphins is done through drawing attention to the level of mercury in dolphin meat. There was an incident in Japan in the 1950s and ‘60s that was later named Minamata Disease for the town in which it had originated. Methylmercury was unknowingly leaked, likely from a factory, into Minamata Bay, contaminating the sea life and later poisoning those who ate what was brought in from the sea. Even though the first patient was officially diagnosed with the disease in 1956, the disease wasn’t completely eradicated until 1968. Because of the gradual increase in pollution these days, mercury levels in seafood seem to be rising, and The Cove uses the Minamata incident as a warning of what could happen in the future if people continue to eat the dolphin meat. The difference between the Minamata incident and current mercury levels in seafood is that the contamination in the 1950s was caused by a large amount of contaminates entering a concentrated area over a short period of time. The reason why it lasted so long was because the government failed to apply the Food Sanitation Act, which would have regulated the eating of the contaminated seafood.4 Instead, the public was left to eat seafood freely without being given effective information to protect their health. The mercury levels in seafood now aren’t nearly as high as they were to cause the Minamata disease. Because of this, I think banning the selling of dolphin or whale meat because of its level of mercury would be no different than banning the selling of tobacco or alcohol. As long as the person who buys the harmful product understands the risks, who are we to stand in the way?

Another reason to feel opposed to the killing of dolphins is because they are considered creatures with higher-order thinking. I believe this to be true, but I disagree with the way The Cove presents this information to the audience. In the documentary, O’Barry says, “I knew [when working on the TV show “Flipper”] they were self-aware.” He would watch the show outside next to the water with Kathy, one of the starring dolphins, and O’Barry says Kathy could recognize when she was on TV or when it was one of the other dolphins. At one point in the documentary, O’Barry says this is the foundation of his belief that dolphins shouldn’t be killed. Other people that appear in the documentary also state that the fact that dolphins can recognize their reflection is proof that dolphins are self-aware. This is a little misleading, as it cannot be proved that dolphins are self-aware. The mirror test is a reason to believe that dolphins are self-aware, but it is not proof.

It’s true that we have reason to believe dolphins have higher-order thinking, but I don’t think this is a convincing argument for why dolphins shouldn’t be killed. Within the idea of what may be called species egalitarianism, all nonhumans are equal. It doesn’t matter which traits they do or do not have. There are many different traits in the world, and one is not more valuable than the other. In other words, an animal’s worth shouldn’t be based on traits, such as thinking or feeling. If killing cows and chickens is permissible, then in the same way it should also be permissible to kill dolphins and whales. I’m skeptical to say that we don’t kill other intelligent animals. Consider horses, pigs and octopuses, for example. Horses deal with mental challenges such as keeping one step ahead of their predators, and they have good spatial discrimination.5 Pigs are quick to learn new routines and can learn how to use mirrors to keep an eye out for predators or search for food.6 Octopuses have flexible problem-solving skills and have shown instances of playing, which is something that intelligent animals do.7 These animals all show signs of intelligence, but they are also animals that are killed by humans for food, without much opposition. Even if these animals aren’t capable of higher-order thinking, their problem-solving skills are undeniable. Are they less valuable than dolphins because they might possess less intelligence?

Probably one of the biggest reasons against killing dolphins is because we have an emotional attachment to them in a way that Japanese people do not. Japanese people consider dolphins and whales to be the same as fish, whereas the U.S. clearly considers them very different. Our perception of eating dolphins and whale as bad is probably rooted in Christianity. In Leviticus 11:9-12, it’s written:

9These shall ye eat of all that are in the waters: whatsoever hath fins and scales in the waters, in the seas, and in the rivers, them shall ye eat. 10And all that have not fins and scales in the seas, and in the rivers, of all that move in the waters, and of any living thing which is in the waters, they shall be an abomination unto you: 11They shall be even an abomination unto you; ye shall not eat of their flesh, but ye shall have their carcasses in abomination. 12Whatsoever hath no fins nor scales in the waters, that shall be an abomination unto you. (King James Version)

Under these guidelines, dolphins and whales (and octopuses, which are also eaten often in Japan) are deemed unclean. Also, in The Cove O’Barry says that in the Greek era, hurting a dolphin was punishable by death and that there are many stories from this time of dolphins saving humans.

In the same way, Japan’s cultural past has shaped its current views of eating animals. Until 200 years ago, the eating of meat was prohibited by traditional Buddhist priests. Funny enough, this was only applied to meat from four-legged land animals and did not include meat from fish. This can tell us that Japanese have a long history of considering land mammals and sea creatures differently, whereas we tend to classify animals through taxonomic ranks, in which case dolphins and whales are categorized as mammals, the same as us humans.

The East also has a history of considering cats, dogs, and horses as food, but the West generally does not. Our relationship with these animals has almost always been as pets, or in the case of horses, as valuable modes of transportation and/or farming. Humans didn’t raise these animals in the same way we did with chickens and pigs (i.e. with the purpose to kill and eat them). Another reason we traditionally don’t kill these animals could also be rooted in Christianity the same way dolphins and whales were considered inappropriate to eat. In the same chapter of Leviticus as previously mentioned, it is written “Whatsoever parteth the hoof, and is clovenfooted, and cheweth the cud, among the beasts, that shall ye eat” (Leviticus 11:3, KJV). By this, cats, dogs and horses are unclean.

In Hinduism, cows are considered sacred and are therefore forbidden from being eaten, but there isn’t a movement of Hindus trying to suppress the rest of the world’s consumption of beef. So why, then, are we so eager to stop the eating of dolphin, which is not only eaten is Japan but also in some places in South America and the Faroe Islands? An easy response to this would be to say that because Japan’s reason to eat dolphins and whales isn’t based in religion, it doesn’t have as much merit as the Hindus not eating cows. It is true that it’s not based in religious reasoning, but it is based in historical culture and is, for that reason, still very important. Cultural identity has a great deal of psychological relevance and can be considered a requirement to have a fulfilled life. To deny a person part of his or her culture is a slippery slope. Denying someone of his or her freedom takes away dignity. When the basis of understanding is different, do we have the right to correct others when we think they are wrong?

The Cove uses dolphin’s higher-order thinking and high-mercury levels as reasons to not kill dolphins, but what the filmmakers are really basing their reasoning on is the emotional connection they’ve made to the animals and how they’ve anthropomorphized dolphins. There is a word for this in Japanese: kanjouron (literally “emotion argument,” basing an argument on emotions). Within one moment, Ric O’Barry went from a dolphin trainer for the original “Flipper” TV show to an activist for freeing dolphins.  The cause was the death of Kathy the dolphin. He says Kathy was depressed and one day knowingly committed suicide by refusing to take a needed breath of air. The next morning he was arrested for trying to free a dolphin from a laboratory. His relationship with dolphins has been emotional from the beginning. He even named the dolphins with which he worked. He uses other reasons to counter the killing of dolphins, but he is still motivated by emotion, and he is probably driven to fight for dolphins because of the amount of guilt he feels for his days working on “Flipper” and, especially, the death of Kathy. It’s sad and unfortunate that Kathy the dolphin died from what were probably unnatural causes, but it’s important to realize that she most likely died from stress or fatigue rather than killing herself. The way in which O’Barry recounts her death is an emotionally-charged, anthropomorphic one, one to sway us and not assuredly factual.

Robert Solomon argues that emotions are rational and can show how we value things.8 In the same vein, Michael Stocker9 says “Emotions can be evaluatively accurate and informative, and indeed more accurate and informative than reason and belief…” (64). This may be true, but even if emotions are taken into consideration, they will still lead to difference in what is valued. Those who feel emotional toward the killing of dolphins have a different basis for their emotions than do those who don’t feel emotional toward the killing of dolphins. Japanese people don’t believe it is bad to kill animals for food because they respect the animal. In the Shinto tradition, before Japanese people begin to eat they’re meal, they say, “Itadakimasu. I humbly receive this.” They are thanking the spirit of the animal that has been killed to give them sustenance. Between people those for the killing of dolphins and those against the killing of dolphins, there are cultural differences of how dolphins and whales are viewed and value. Does this mean the emotional people’s opinions are wrong? I don’t believe so, but neither are their valuings more correct than those who value the killing of dolphins.

The Cove goes as far as to say that the rest of Japan doesn’t know about what’s happening in Taiji and that it’s because there is a big media cover-up (“a complete blackout” according to O’Barry) influenced by the government. This is a huge fabrication. O’Barry gives no proof for why he should believe this is true. The closest the documentary gets to supporting this idea is when O’Barry asks random people on the streets of Tokyo if they knew about the slaughtering that happens in Taiji. All of the people shown in the documentary say they weren’t aware of it. There are two things wrong with this. Firstly, O’Barry asks the Japanese person the question in English, but since the people he’s asking seemingly don’t understand English, a translator is beside him to ask the people in Japanese. However, we don’t hear what the translator asks the Japanese people. We only hear O’Barry and then the person’s subtitled answer of shock. We have no way to know what the translator actually asked the person. Secondly, the filmmakers used selective surveying to support their point, which is not very reliable. Not only did they ask people from the biggest metropolis in Japan, who are more likely to not know about what happens in the rest of the country, the filmmakers also claimed that these people’s answers were representative of the entire country, which is a very weak argument. The Japanese people I have personally asked were all aware of dolphin slaughtering in Japan, but from this, I do not make a universal statement that all Japanese people think this way. All I can say from this is that some people are aware of it and some are not. A proper survey spanning the country and with an appropriate number of respondents would be necessary to make such a claim either way.

The problem shouldn’t be the fact that dolphins and whales are killed—it should be the way in which they are killed (or the fact that any animals are killed at all, but that’s another topic). In The Cove, the filmmakers capture on camera the brutal way in which the fishermen in Taiji kill dolphins. I wonder if the death of the dolphins would be less of a problem if the way in which they were killed was much more respectful and done with causing the least amount of pain on the creatures. For example, it’s relatively well-known how poorly KFC treats the chickens they turn into food. The company prepares the chickens in a factory style, treating the chickens as if they’re nothing more than inanimate objects to be ripped apart. Knowing this, even seeing this happen, hasn’t stopped me from eating chicken. However, it will stop me from eating KFC and tell others what I know. I don’t like the idea of other living creatures being killed for my sake, but my lifestyle and the lifestyles of those around me depend too much on the consumption of animal protein for me to change my eating habits for the sake of animals not being. My grandfather grew up on a farm in Georgia, and when I was younger, he used to keep rabbits for the purpose of eating them. One minute I would be holding the rabbit in my arms; a couple of hours later, I would be eating its cooked meat. I was raised on the idea that animals are our food. It seems the most natural to me. As long as dolphins and whales are killed without stress and pain, and as long as an endangered species isn’t being killed, then I’m inclined to say there’s nothing wrong with the Japanese killing dolphins and whales and eating the meat.

It’s undeniable that dolphins are intelligent; however, I’ve argued that this is no reason to condemn the killing of dolphins. I think it’s either permissible to kill all animals or it’s wrong to kill all animals, with no discrimination between species. Japan has a long history of killing dolphins and whales. Who are we to tell them their culture is wrong?


1 Ellington, Lucien. Japan. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2009. 120.

2 Itasaka, Gen. “Fishing Industry.” Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan. Tokyo: Kodansha [u.a.], 1983. 284-85.

3 Ellington, Lucien. Japan: a Global Studies Handbook. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC CLIO, 2002. 8.

4 Tsuda, Toshihide, Takashi Yorifuji, Soshi Takao, Masaya Miyai, and Akira Babazono. “Minamata Disease: Catastrophic Poisoning Due to a Failed Public Health Response.” Journal of Public Health Policy 30.I (2009): 54-67.

5 Hanggi, Evelyn B. “Understanding Horse Intelligence.” Horsetalk. 16 Apr. 2007. Web. 25 Apr. 2011. <;.

6 Angier, Natalie. “Basics – In Pig Cognition Studies, Reflections on Parallels With Humans –” The New York Times. New York Times Company, 06 Nov. 2009. Web. 25 Apr. 2011. <;.

7 Borrell, Brendan. “Are Octopuses Smart?” Scientific American. 27 Feb. 2009. Web. 25 Apr. 2011. <;.

8 Solomon, Robert C. “Emotion and Choice.” What Is an Emotion? Ed. Cheshire Calhoun. New York: Oxford UP, 1984. 305-26.

9 Stocker, Michael. “How Emotions Reveal Value.” Valuing Emotions. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996. 56-87.

This essay was written by Jeannette Anderson for an environmental ethics course at St. Olaf College, spring 2011.



Filed under Essays, Japan

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