With efficient, effective public transport, unique cultural traditions and almost non-existent crime, it is hard to find many issues with Japan. However, as one of the only countries in the world where whaling and the sale of whale meat is still legal, Japan's relationship with cetaceans is one of concern and cruelty.
Calls to boycott the country until it stops the hunting and the infamous Taiji dolphin drives are frequent, but is this the best course of action for travellers anxious about animal welfare? Should we boycott Japan, or should we instead focus our attention on supporting an, albeit slowly, turning tide of change?
Dolphinarium in Japan. Credit: Antti T. Nissinen
It is not difficult to be aware of the highly unethical dolphin 'drives' in Taiji, where these creatures are corralled and caught and sold to dolphinariums, or killed slowly for their meat. Around half of Japan's dolphinariums display dolphins captured in Taiji and the number of these facilities has increased by 23%, suggesting that the growing international awareness of animal welfare issues associated with marine parks has not permeated Japanese culture just yet. Added to this, Japan, along with Iceland and Norway, is one of the only countries in the world still whaling for food, despite an international moratorium. It is also flouting the UN International Court of Justice's ruling in March 2014 to stop all whaling in the Antarctic, after it found that the country's research whaling is commercial whaling in disguise.
So engrained are the rituals and customs dictating everyday life that any attempt at change is layered with as many reasons for not doing something as for doing it, and this is partly the problem in Japan. But is boycotting the answer? Or should we use the influence of our tourist dollars to nuture the small shoots of change which are gradually starting to appear.
Boycotting a country is a complex issue. Often it is not the people who commit the atrocities we are protesting against who suffer, instead it is the small, local businesses and local people dependent on tourism for income who are affected. I believe that instead we can use our presence to promote and support those individuals and businesses who are working to provide successful alternatives to whaling, to show that there is no tourist demand for whale meat, for visiting dolphinariums and that those businesses acting in an ethical, responsible way are the ones which will ultimately be the most successful.
According to the Associated Press, demand for whale meat in Japan is falling, with stockpiles doubling over the last 10 years and some whaling communities are starting to switch onto sustainability, using their expertise to set up whale watching rather than hunting businesses. The most established of these being the Ogasawara Whale Watching Association (OWA). Some effort is required on tourists' parts to support this community - a 25 hour ferry ride - but not only are they rewarded in knowing they are doing their bit to protect Japan's cetaceans but they will also find themselves in the 'Galapagos of the Orient', a remote, untouched and very special group of islands. Read more on supporting Japan's whale watching industry, and avoiding animal cruelty disguised as culture at http://www.responsibletravel.com/holidays/japan.
Choosing a wild dolphin or whale watching tour over a visit to Japan's dolphinariums is vital, but as Philip Mansbridge, UK Director for IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare) points out, although the big marine parks worldwide will not source their dolphins from the Taiji hunts, "the giants like SeaWorld and their marketing machines create demand and the low budget copycats abuse this with worse standards and far from sound procurement policies". So, it becomes important to avoid visiting dolphinariums worldwide, to stop demand for the capture of dolphins in Japan. Earlier this year we launched a campaign petitioning the tourism industry to stop supporting and selling tickets to marine parks, and found that 86% of UK holidaymakers would not want to visit a captive dolphin or whale facility while on holiday. You can add your name to the petition here: http://www.responsibletravel.com/stop-orca-circus.
Ultimately it is up to each one of us, as travellers, to research and understand the issues associated with the country we are visiting and to make a decision as to whether we travel. If we choose to visit then we have a responsibility to ensure that we are not adding to these issues. In Japan this means being aware of the animal welfare concerns surrounding cetaceans; avoiding visiting dolphinariums, not eating whale meat and supporting wild whale watching tours. Politely discussing your views with the people you meet will also help spread the message, as Japan oh-so gradually starts to review and question these aspects of its culture and tradition.