At the end of last year I had a fortnight in Japan, filming its wildlife and wild places. It's a country I love, and know quite well, having spent a year there studying martial arts, living and breathing Japanese culture, and teaching English. I've been back many times over the years, and traveled the length of the archipelago from paddling amongst pack ice in the frozen north, to the beaches of the subtropical south. The longer you spend there, the more you start to peel back the layers of courtesy and ritual that run deep through this fascinating country.
However on my last trip, whenever I tweeted anything about Japan, I was dismayed at the responses. Many were along the lines of; 'How can you support them? Don't you know what those sadistic murderers are doing at Taiji? #TheCove', or 'evil whale-eating monsters, they should be strung up!' It seemed wrong to me to intimate that just going to Japan was the same as gorging yourself on whale steaks for breakfast lunch and dinner. But worse, I believe this isolationist, us-and-them, borderline racist polemic is actually one of the most damaging factors in the battle for conservation at the Cove.
On a long car journey through Japan's sugar-frosted snowy mountains, I had a very illuminating conversation about Taiji with one of my Japanese friends Hiriyuki, himself a wildlife photographer and nature lover. The situation at Taiji is one of the great icons of modern global conservation, a regular dolphin hunt where the waters of the Cove are said to run red with their blood. The animals are herded into the Cove using sound, before being finished off with a spike driven into the neck. In one year around 1600 dolphins were killed here, others taken into captivity, and shipped off around the world. Hiriyuki is usually extremely polite. It was then a surprise when he rounded on my first tentative questions about Taiji with surprising force. He was indignant at what he saw as unwelcome meddling by Westerners in Japanese affairs; 'This is not fair,' he said. 'After all you torture and kill foxes, badgers and hares for entertainment, just for fun! You don't even eat the meat.'
'That's not me!' I argued, 'and foxes aren't endangered!'
'Well I don't kill dolphins,' he responded, 'and dolphins are not endangered.' (This is of course true, the species taken at Taiji are listed as 'Least Concern' by the IUCN.)
'But cetaceans have developed personalities,' I argued, 'clear ideas of self and others, they mourn their dead, care for their young, cry if they're separated from them...'
'So do pigs, and cows,' he responded, 'and you kill those in their millions. And bullfighting is absolutely barbaric, and in America you hunt everything that moves!'
'But I'm not American! Or Spanish! And I hate those things as much as anyone!' I was starting to get pretty indignant myself now, feeling defensive and argumentative. How could he lump me in with trigger-happy hunters?!
'But you're not doing anything about that are you?' He continued, 'You're coming to Japan, and calling us inhuman, and telling us we have to save whales, because that's what you Western people have chosen to save, and you say we have to obey your rules!'
He went on to quote a variety of different scientific papers and whaling moratoriums, and had clearly thought it through. And yet he is an animal lover, does not eat whale himself, and thinks it's wrong for dolphin to be kept in small enclosures in aquariums. As our long drive went on, I began to think it was less about the morality of killing dolphins, and more about national pride. The issue was important to him because heavy-handed foreigners had waded in to Japan and judged. And I had to see his point. How would we feel if foreign crusaders were to start calling Brits barbaric, sadistic and evil? We'd probably tell them to get stuffed.
For the rest of the trip it kept me awake at night. I brought it up with other Japanese friends, and received similar responses. There was a disconnect here, and conventional methods of diplomacy clearly weren't working. Over the fortnight traveling, as I rediscovered all the ritualised politeness of Japanese society, it struck me that what was needed was a more considered, understanding, less self-righteous approach.
And so this evening, I'm flying out to Japan for a week. I'm going to head down to Taiji, watch, record proceedings on my camera phone, and make some homemade films on events in the Cove, doing my best to record what happens in an even-handed, respectful fashion. I'll do them in both English, and then a more simple message in my sketchy Japanese, which I'll then try and get out on social media in Japan. Hopefully by making the effort, it will show I'm not judging, but hoping to appeal to my friends in Japan to come and look for themselves and make up their own minds. It would be naive to believe that this is suddenly going to create any stratospheric change, but I feel it's worth a try. My belief is that we can only achieve something tangible when we work together with other nations, and for me this particular issue is important because of what it stands for. If we can treat the world's most intelligent, charismatic and universally adored animal in this way, what hope do we have of saving anything else?