Whales in Overcoats

Copyright Jim Nollman, 1994, all rights reserved

The warm subtropical waters of Ogasawara are thick with migrating humpback whales every spring. Not too many years ago this island chain located 600 miles south of Tokyo was considered prime whaling grounds. But then the humpback whales were declared an endangered species which eliminated them from the short list of species available for the Japanese whale-killing machine. A booming whalewatching business has developed there in the interim. In fact, Ogasawara is just one of several spots in this beautiful country where the Japanese are suddenly developing an intense love affair with living whales.

The tour that brings me to Japan is produced by a Tokyo-based organization calling itself The International Cetacean Education and Research Center--ICERC for short. Their stated aim is to promote this blossoming interspecies love affair nation-wide. Now, after a week of close daily contact with many ICERC members, I get a strong sense of their own personal committment to portray the whales as a kind of animal headliner for a grand Gaian vision of the ocean. And why not? The whales are a celebrity species. According to ICERC founder, Takako Iwatani, they help humans see nature in new ways. Ultimately, ICERC hopes to provide a bit of guidance to keep this new improved vision of whale-filled oceans from turning into just another theme park for the Japanese tourist mill.

Ogasawara has no airplane service to speak of, so more than two hundred-people attending the series of events board a steamship in Tokyo and sail south together for 28 hours. We arrive at the biggest island of the chain, Chichijima (father island) in midafternoon, and step off the boat into bright sunshine. In the distance, a white sand beach and blue-green water beckons across a wide expanse of green lawn. A large flock of conference volunteers stand by to greet us. You can tell them by their handsome baseball jackets with the words Whalewatching Association of Ogasawara emblazoned in bold English letters across the back. They collect our baggage, trundle it off to the various inns that serve as accomodations for the four day event.

We presenters are herded along the quay and onto a beautifully manicured town park where we are startled to notice the sheer size of the crowd gathered to greet us. The translators tell us to stand at ease in a straight line in front of a huge statue of a humpback whale breaching out of a flat sea of cast concrete. As I tip my face skyward to take in the warm rays of the sun, I hear a woman's soft voice speak out my name. Looking down, I notice she clutches a permanent marking pen in one hand and a conference sweatshirt in the other. In broken English she politely inquires if I might sign my name to the front of her conference sweatshirt. Her predatory eyes assure me that the request is made in dead earnest. I smile tentatively, take the pen in hand, watch as she spreads the spreadshirt across her arm. She stares at me as I write. She's fidgety now, nearly breathless, starstruck. Is it possible that I'm her star?

A queue forms. The next woman in line holds up another sweatshirt for me to sign. I sign it dutifully. Someone else taps my shoulder, smiles into my face and holds up one of those Fuji cameras made from green cardboard. Would I allow him to have his picture taken with me? I nod. Another young man appears on cue to take the picture. The two men trade places for another picture. Someone else sticks his head under my arm and asks for yet another picture. More people appear, more pictures, more marking pens. One woman asks me to write my name across the front of the t-shirt she has on. I laugh and then frown before staring her in the eye. She is embarrassed; holds up her sleeve instead. Someone asks me to sign the Japanese translation of my first book, Dolphin Dreamtime. Funny, that book is out of print in America. Here in Japan it's selling like hotcakes. Perhaps stranger still, where I live in a little town in the Pacific Northwest, the majority of my neighbors don't know me from Joe Blow.

An athletic-looking Japanese man with a huge smile and a whiffle haircut vaults to the front of the line of presenters. He places a portable loudspeaker to his lips and begins introducing each of conference presenters with the enthusiasm of a cheerleader at a football game. First, Canadian orca researcher, Paul Spong. He is one of the founders of Greenpeace and currently directs a campaign to free captive orcas from oceanariums. On this tour he has quickly emerged as a master orator, speaking softly and slowly to his Japanese audience on a variety of subjects including the family behavior of orcas and the problems inherent in whalewatching. Next in line is the Frenchman, Jacques Mayol who is universally regarded as the grand old man of free-diving. Jacques held the deep diving record for years and years. One of his videos depicts him descending eighty meters assisted by two dolphins while his pure white hair streams out behind him. Having spent some time with Jacques over the past week, I have learned that he considers himself more a master of pranayama (breath) yoga than any sort of athlete after records.

I don't understand much Japanese, but the master of ceremony's TV quiz show manner adds a special twist to the words I fantasize him using to introduce each member of the tour. Then its my turn. "And next is someone very special I know you've all been waiting to meet..." At that moment, one of the tour interpreters signals me to take a giant step backwards onto the statue's raised concrete base. "You know him, we love him...". As the loudspeaker blares out my name in heavy-metal distortion, I give a courteous bow to the sea of faces below and then turn light-headed from the ensuing applause. As I tip my neck up to try to suss out how many people there are in this large crowd, it suddenly dawns on me that I am about to lose my eyesight. A hundred flash bulbs explode simultaneously.

After a short speech by the mayor, the ceremony draws to a close. Cars arrive. We presenters are driven to our various Beds and Breakfasts. But we are granted a mere half hour to unpack and freshen up. Right on time, someone arrives to gather us up again. The conference group, now swelled to 300 people, is shepherded along a brand new highway cut through the lava rock. Up and up we climb to one of the highest points on the island where a sturdy wooden overlook has been built for watching the humpback whales frolicking in the waters 800 meters below.

If Japan has a worldwide reputation for killing whales, it is soon obvious that no one in this group can be held accountable. Someone on the far left of the overlook spies what she thinks is a whale blowing far out at sea. Everyone on the platform rushes towards the left, stops, places binoculars to their eyes. Disappointment, it is only a whitecap. But wait a minute. A woman on the right is shouting, "kujira! kujira! whale! whale!" She saw it breach!!! Everyone runs to the other side of the platform. Some people look ready to jump out of her skin.

Ultimately, you could be blind, speak not a word of Japanese, and still know when somebody sights a whale. It is always accompanied by individual huzzas, then a collective sigh, followed by a dramatic hush. Those observers, not blind, next observe that the majority of whalewatchers is busy adjusting camera settings, silently calculating precisely how long a duration must pass before those mysterious whale lungs will cause those powerful whale flukes to thrust the animal back to the surface again. The whale spouts. The ratchet clicking of fifty motor drives is quickly followed by a hundred more sighs, hoots, and applause. Inm some ways, it seems an ominous demonstration of Susan Sontag's premise that the global information society is turning its citizens into image-junkies. Having a peak experience has become identical with taking a photograph of it.

I feel on the verge of turning sarcastic over this process of watching the whalewatchers when I feel my stilted viewpoint do a back flip. Barreling back and forth across the platform may look silly, but it also gives a clear glimpse of a transformation occurring before my eyes. All the sighs and shouts could just as easily be construed as a form of emotional catharsis. With every lunge of the crowd, these individuals are shaking themselves loose from an antiecological worldview that, over the course of their lives, has taught them to perceive whales as nothing but products or statistics. Now, standing high above the Pacific Ocean watching the watchers watch the whales spout, I realize that these individuals are in the kindergarten of a re-learning process to perceive nature as a part of themselves. This year it's cameras, next year, who knows, maybe its unimpeded eyes. One of the presenters expressed the view that our group of alternative whale professionals had been brought to this faraway island paradise to provide some expert tips for the locals on how to appreciate whales without cameras and without using fast motorboats to zoom up on their backs. What we're really here to do is witness the giddy spectacle of an entire nation testing the waters of a brand new identity.

The real agenda of this grand three week tour of Japan is changing the way the Japanese relate to whales and dolphins. For years it was them against us, us of course meaning most of the rest of the world. We wanted them to stop whaling. By the mid-1970's they had started responding to our demands with non sequiturs, for instance, the one about extinction not being a pertinent issue, no matter that several species of great whales had dwindled to just a few thousand individuals. Our demands intensified. They responded with obtuse legalities that ultimately pointed out the harsh fact that there was no international law forbidding them from killing as many whales as they damn well pleased. They believed that lack of such a law sanctioned continued whaling.

The Western environmental movement responded to these arguments as if the Japanese were only stonewalling. Their reasoning didn't seem to make any sense so what was the point of us even trying to understand their point of view. Yet Western environmentalists never made any real effort to comprehend their illogical arguments as if they might possibly contain some hidden truth about Japanese culture. For the whales sake it became increasingly urgent to stop Japan through any means possible. In a way, the conflict proved a classic example of an irresistable force meeting an immoveable object. As Dave Phillips of San Francisco's Earth Island Institute puts it, "By the early 1980's, the International Whaling Commission's annual meeting had degenerated into a slugfest. And every year the whaling fleets still left harbor on schedule."

Finally, in the mid-1980's, the international save-the-whale movement achieved a tenuous victory. The much-beleaguered Japanese whaling industry was, for all intents and purposes, put out of business through the International Whaling Commission's global moratorium on the taking of whales. Yet today, nearly ten years after the moratorium first went into effect, there has still been no real resolution to the issue. The Japanese feel they were humiliated by a Western "cause" that put the needs of whales before the needs of people. Many Japanese concluded--and with some justification--that the Western environmental movement was (and still is) distinctly anti-Japanese.

Today, many elements within the save-the-whale movement still paint Japan as the enemy, even as the Japanese government determinedly chips away at the edges of the moratorium. Yet given the context, why wouldn't they chip? History offers a thousand examples of cultures that vigorously resist laws that get enforced upon them from the outside. Ultimately, lasting change only occurs in a culture when the people decide to transform themselves.

Not coincidentally, transform is one of the words used most often to describe this dolphin and whale tour. Everyone in attendence seems to agree that the tour is a huge success because it is transforming the culture. Thousands of people have bought tickets. Millions more are hearing about this new benign vision about whales and dolphins from magazine stories spun off from the tour, or from the myriad TV and radio interviews with the presenters. Everyone in Japan suddenly seems poised too entertain the notion that cetaceans possess ways to nourish humanity beyond their old role as a food resource.

I'm in the tour from start to finish; three weeks and seven stops through this green and beautiful country. My own presentation describes a personal 20 year exploration of musical communication with various cetacean species. I shore up my essential points with a catchy slide show and I even play a few songs on guitar. I conclude each show by asking my audience to close their eyes and open their ears. Then I play an interspecies music cassette entitled Orcas Greatest Hits. The music demonstrates that at least a few cetaceans in this world are capable of playing along with Indian raga melodies and blues rhythms. If the sound system is adequate people do tend to close their eyes and listen intently. If my voice-over explaining what it means for humans and orcas to improvize "in the same band" and in "real time"--as opposed to overdubbing parts in a studio--this music can indeed transform a person's inclinations towards whales and dolphins. If it's happening, you hear it.

ICERC was founded ten years ago by an Australian breath therapist, Kamala Hope-Campbell, who incorporated aspects of cetacean breathing into her own therapy. Kamala started meeting many other non-scientists like herself involved in innovative work inspired by cetaceans and founded ICERC to serve as a network hub for these activities worldwide. The acronym, ICERC, is pronounced I Search and is meant to serve both as a pun and an alternative to the word research. To Kamala, the concept of research implies an expertdriven, control-oriented, and observational study of nature. By contrast, her made up word, ICERC, implies an experiential, and distinctly participatory relationship with nature. ICERC, the organization, produced a series of conferences--the first two in Australia, the third in Hawaii--where several cetacean explorers met, spoke, and shared their ideas.

A Japanese woman named Takako Iwatani attended the third ICERC conference held on the Kona Coast in 1992. Takako had been deeply moved by an encounter with wild dolphins off the coast of Japan, and she now found herself captivated by several of the presentations that gave a deeper, Gaian twist to her own personal experience. Takako realized that the ICERC conference was very different in its approach to the whales than any environmental or scientific conference she had attended in the past. ICERC seemed wholly dedicated to cultural change and consciousness-raising. The group was far more interested in dolphin myth and spiritual transformation through direct contact with whales in the wild than it was in taxonomy, population dynamics, or even some overt platform to "save the whales". ICERC was as interested in providing a forum for visionaries as for scientists and environmentalists. Some presenters of the ICERC alternative vision spoke first-hand about what it felt like to swim with dolphins. Others talked about the process of attempting non-verbal communication with whales. Some speculated about the telepathic abilities of cetaceans. Yet ICERC was sophisticated enough to avoid the cultish pratfall of promoting cetaceans as if they were a kind of animal guru. Most importantly to Takako, almost no one resorted to the hit-'em-over-the-head-and-knock-some-sense-into-'em approach so favored by Western whale lovers when dealing with the Japanese.

To better understand why the ICERC vision--and the consciousness movement it represents--seemed so momentous to this visionary woman, one must first submit to a brief sociology lesson. Japan is overwhelmingly one people, one culture; perhaps as much a tribe as it is a nation-state. Like many other unilateral cultures, the modern Japanese employ unanimous consensus rather than majority rule as the means to make decisions. As Ichiro Ozawa writes in his Japanese bestseller, Blueprint for a New Japan, "if even one person opposes a decision, it can't be made. Everyone has to conform...There is no room in this system for the concept of individual responsibility."

Since breaking a rule debases a conviction held in common by everyone, this system tends to sustain a culture of individuals who follow the rules. Conversely, when everyone needs everyone else's aprroval to get anything accomplished, people tend to treat each other kindly. Here lies one explanation for Japan's legendary lack of crime. This tenet also provides an insight into the reason why the Japanese government so adamantly rejected the negative strategy utilized by the environmental movement in its clarion call to save the whales. How could the Japanese people be expected to heed a call that vilified the whalers? The whalers also belonged to this tribe. And ultimately, save-the-whales really meant hurt-the-tribe. This was the government's bottom line and it took precedence over all the logical arguments introduced by foreigners in their attempt to show the whalers the error of their ways. Perhaps ironically, the Japanese people never seemed to care very much how many irrational arguments their government invented to thwart the international outcry against whaling.

ICERC had a different platform than the environmental movement. It alluded to saving the whales only circuitously, and then by elevating cetaceans to the status of peers, teachers, and fellow residents of Gaia. The ICERC message was inclusive rather than exclusive; it's vision transcended national politics, economics, classes, and all the other agendas that humans invent to keep people separate. On that note, Takako returned to Tokyo, convinced that many people in Japan would want to embrace these life-enhancing views. She also felt a sense of urgency to her discovery. Who could say how long the whaling moratorium would last? Who could tell how much longer the politicians would keep their resolve to abide by it? Yet Takako also knew that the monolithic Japanese culture is capable of embracing change overnight. As Kamala Hope-Campbell observed, "When one person in Japan changes, everyone changes. It means that there's a very good chance that a loving relationship with whales and dolphins will become mainstream in Japan long before it achieves that status in the West." Both women were very much aware that the deepest spiritual roots of the Japanese lie in ancient Shinto, a religion that worships the forces of nature as the wellspring of all human deed, desire, and culture.

Within a year of forming ICERC-Japan, Takako started booking tours with some of the presenters she had met at the Hawaii conference. She began with Dr. John Lilly, who is assuredly the father figure and best known proponent of the enhanced view of cetacean consciousness. It was Lilly who first popularized the fact that many dolphin species possess a brain larger than a human being. It was Lilly who spent forty years of his life exploring how dolphins utilize their potential intellectual prowess. In the early 1960's Lilly produced a very famous, often mythologized project, in which a woman lived for several months in isolation with a dolphin.

A second series of presentations soon followed, this time headlined by Horace Dobbs, a silver-haired British M.D. and a prolific author of books about his many contacts with dolphins in the wild. Dobb's orthodox medical career took a decided turn towards alternative healing when he began leading dolphin swims in the North Sea with severely depressed patients. As Dobbs describes this novel form of therapy, "People in depression are involuntarily cut off from emotional and spiritual contact with their fellows. Yet the need for contact remains, and the dolphins fulfill that need by exercising their healing power."

By the beginning of 1993, Takako had gathered together enough of an organization and enough experience to begin the gargantuan task of producing the fourth international ICERC conference.

Perhaps the most significant difference between the Japan tour and earlier ICERC conferences lies in the demographics of its audience. Past conferences drew their audience from the ranks of cetacean aficionados, mystical artists, and a smattering of nature cinematographers from around the world--what one presenter refers to as "the international dolphin fan club". The presenters sometimes seemed to be speaking their varied messages to the already converted.

This Japanese tour is different. It has gathered a mainstream audience. At our first stop, at the seaside conference center of Enoshima, an hour's drive south of Tokyo, nearly two thousand people will attend some part of the four-day event. And even as the presentations occur from a podium inside the main hall, so the better-known presenters including Lilly, Dobbs, Mayol, Spong, and myself are kept busy in the back rooms fulfilling a jam-packed schedule of radio and magazine interviews. At another stop, in the rural south on the island of Kyushu, the audience is mostly composed of fishermen, their wives, teenagers, and the elderly. On the last stop, in the business center of Osaka, I will give a slide show presentation on the subject of interspecies communication to a nearly full house of 900 people. Joe Blow packs them in.

Becoming mainstream also explains why we presenters are so often prodded to sign sweatshirts and have our photos taken. In fact, we are being accorded all the lopsided deference that Americans tend to reserve for their pop celebrities. It is tippy ground for many of us presenters. As Horace Dobbs wryly comments, "at home none of us has achieved more than the usual limited notoriety accorded nonbestselling authors, dolphin researchers, conceptual artists, and practitioners of niche therapies. Here, all we have to do is lick our lips and someone arrives with a beer." In fact, our work is intellectual, ecological, sometimes visionary, and always idealistic-traits that hint we will never, ever become mainstream, let alone celebrities in the United States. At least until after we die. Now I peer across the line of presenters and notice Kamala Hope-Campbell's blond head surrounded by a sea of fans and try to imagine Vanna White quitting Wheel of Fortune to take up dolphin breath therapy as a career move to increase her popularity. I conjure up best sellers with titles like Everything Important I Ever Learned, I Learned While Whale Watching.

The world is changing. In the United States, most people now take seriously the idea of closing down the oceanariums and freeing the dolphins back to the ocean. And in Japan, who could fail to notice the images of whales and dolphins glutting the posters in every subway station? Want to sell Sony TV's? Use an image of a humpback whale swimming through crystal clear waters to do it. Want to get people to switch their accounts to the Sanwa bank? Erect a multi-million dollar pavilion in the shape of a whale at a world's fair.

The sharp necessity for more cultural change becomes most apparent to me during the latter part of the tour. I am driven from the Osaka Airport into this city whose striking skyline reminds me of the best of Chicago. The most eye-arresting billboard on the highway displays the likeness of a huge neon whale and announces that the next exit leads to one of Japan's best known restaurants whose speciality is whale meat. Sitting next to me in the car, A Japanese "new-breed" dolphin researcher and fellow presenter, Satoru Yamamoto, is quick to point out that the catchy restaurant billboard is an anomaly. "Sure, the restaurant serves whalemeat, but it is one of the very last places in Japan you can get the stuff. If you talk to people in the street you'd find most of them would rather watch whales than eat them." He frowns and then admits that the existence of such restaurants verifies that the scales have not yet tipped far enough in favor of living, freeswimming whales. It offers proof that the Japanese delegation to the IWC still remains duty-bound and stubborn to represent the last few whaling families to the bitter end. I can help but hold up a symbolic mirror and get reminded of the politicians in my own state of Washington who would just as soon represent the forest industries until the last old growth tree is cut down.

The woman sitting on the other side of Yamamoto-san leans across the seat to whisper conspiratorially. "You see, the government discovered a sneaky way to get around the IWC moratorium. They started a policy called 'scientific whaling'. It means that the whaling companies set up a phony research institute that demands a hundred or so minke whale bodies get 'harvested' each year for 'study'. Can you believe that the IWC let them get away with that?

They kill a hundred whales just to keep a few upscale restaurants in business."

On our last morning together on the last stop of the tour, Yamamoto-san and I decide to wander away from the Osaka conference center for breakfast. We walk along the busy streets until we find a western-style cafe that predictably serves excellent coffee, Viennese pastries, and sandwiches made from slices of white bread so thick they resemble platform shoes. We are soon standing at a little round table devouring croissants and drinking juice, slowly warming up to our favorite subject--the cultural dimensions of this work we do with whales and dolphins. Yamamoto-san gets a faraway glint in his eye and starts describing a temple erected centuries ago in the old Japanese whaling center of Taiji. "In those days, life for a whaler was a very risky business. Too often, the men never returned home from a hunt. But you know, the old time whalers knew something about conservation. For them it was a spiritual issue. For instance, they had a strict rule against killing pregnant females. But it was very difficult to tell the difference between a fat whale and a pregnant whale. Sometimes they couldn't even tell if the whale was pregnant until they cut it open after it had been killed and dragged up on the shore.

"If they found that the whale they killed was pregnant, the men responsible for the killing would run home to get their best silk overcoats. They would return and wrap the fetus in their coats. Depending on the species, the carcass might be eight feet long, so, as you might imagine, it sometimes took a lot of overcoats. Then they'd bury the whale on the temple grounds after a ceremony of atonement."

As Yamamoto-san concludes the story, he pauses. The roar of the rush hour traffic on the street filters into consciousness."You know, even if there was no whaling moratorium going on, they still wouldn't hunt great whales at Taiji anymore. There aren't any left to hunt."

I grimace, recall the name of Taiji from a recent video expose I've seen about the place. "Maybe there's no whales left, but those people have the crazy idea in their heads that they are still whalers. So now they catch a lot of dall's porpoises. They say the meat tastes terrible, metallic." I sigh, stare into my green tea. "Maybe someday soon they'll switch over to porpoise watching instead. After what I've seen on this tour, anything seems possible."

Yamamoto-san turns to me and shakes his head. "I don't know why, but those people at Taiji stopped doing their overcoat ceremony a long time ago. The temple's still there. In a way I guess you could say it is the story of modern civilization. It seems we've all forgotten how to say we're sorry to nature." He smiles. "You know, if I could have this tour accomplish just one thing, It would be that."

Jim Nollman beluga@rockisland.com

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