Not Touching Ferns

©1996, Jim Nollman

From the Interspecies Newsletter

Having traveled to Japan many times over the past twenty years to promote living whales, the question everyone wants me to

answer is whether the Japanese are showing signs of getting out of whaling. The quick answer is "sort of". A better answer is offered below. It may surprise you.

The biggest event of my pro-whale tour occurred in the city of Muroran, on the northern island of Hokkaido. Traditional Industries dependent on logs and minerals and are now depleted. Economic hope exists in the form of a new tunnel that connects Hokkaido to Honshu. Tourism is being touted as the focus of development. Civic leaders envision their city as the whalewatching center of Northern Japan. I was invited there by the mayor to play music with the local dolphins, and thus generate a media event to promote whalewatching in Hokkaido.

The details of our three days in Muroran can only be described as a media blitz. I was asked to play music to whatever cetaceans we found on the sea to the accompaniment of two entire ships filled to the brim with newspaper and TV journalists. The skipper informed us we might encounter Brydes whales, pilot whales, possibly sperm whales and orcas, and definitely Pacific white-sided dolphins. We were out on the water by five AM, motored two and half hours on a windy, cold, rough sea to the place the skipper assured us we would find whales. All the way out to this meeting place, the fish finder displayed an immense sixty meter thick column of living creatures underwater which our host identified as krill. One should have expected huge herds of whales to be there gorging on the krill. But there were no whales, which suggested to me that they must have all been killed with the result that the krill population lives free of predation.

We stopped the boat and sat in a cold wind. No whales showed. So the two boats full of mostly seasick people motored another hour until we came upon a pod of twenty white-sided dolphins. I hooked up my sound system and played a Dervish song while the cameras clicked and whirred. A young TV actress appeared beside me on cue to act enthusiastic while more cameras flashed.

Interacting with the White-sided dolphins was a difficult task. Such small dolphins vocalize in a range far above the limit of human hearing. The fragments of sound we can discern seem about as animated as the hearing tests we all took in elementary school. I played and played.

I changed to a James Brown riff. The dolphins cooperated, turning toward the boat for a brief moment. Someone commented that they were swimming right at the speaker. It seemed a generous interpretation since they were still a hundred yards away. One animal vocalized a few times right in synch with the riff. People got excited. They started shouting, pointing, sighing, tapping their chest as if a miracle had occurred. The cameras flashed again. A hundred people on two boats forgot their stomach ills and stood against the railing wide-eyed and open-mouthed. Clearly, they had caught their own anticipated glimpse of the dolphin dreamtime. Then the dolphins turned, swam away.

I broke down the system, shivering so hard in the cold that I could barely function. Ironically, as soon as the skipper started the engine, the dolphins returned to play in the bow wave. The actress commented to me through an interpreter that several seagulls had been vocalizing with the guitar music in a very intelligent manner from the start to the finish of my concert. Then she asked her own film crew why they were so interested in the dolphins but not at all interested in the seagulls. It didn’t take a translator to tell me they thought she was naive. I also thought she was naive. But wise as well.

We headed back to shore where the myth making started in earnest. Our host insisted, no demanded, that I declare the day’s brief encounter to be among the most remarkable interactions of my career. It would have been easy to get away with it. After all, many in the press corps already believed it was true; several journalists on board had been absolutely riveted when the dolphins turned toward the boat. I just needed to say it aloud and, in the same sentence as the name, Muroran.

I couldn’t do it. Even contemplating my host’s request showed me the ugly lesson of what it means to be corrupted by fame and money. I stood in front of a battery of microphones at the well-attended press conference and stated that the dolphins were most likely displaying curiosity when they turned. And yes, it was a very promising start to what I hoped would develop into a long term relationship between the local dolphins and the new whalewatching community of Muroran. Everyone was happy. It made all the papers and TV news shows


What It’s For

Despite continuing bad news about the whaling industry of Japan falling on ever more fraudulent schemes in the horrible cause of decimating the world’s dwindling whale populations, most of the Japanese people seem hardly aware that it’s even an issue. Their own relationship with whales is neither opportunistic nor even unfriendly. Images of living whales and smiling dolphins currently beam out from countless TV commercials and subway posters until they must be counted among the predominant icons of contemporary Japanese photography.

This saturation of media images does not exist in a moral vacuum. The very rapid growth of whalewatching and dolphin swimming is occurring just about everywhere in Japan that cetaceans venture close to shore. It seems to me that the sheer number of people in Japan now spending their leisure time in the presence of living whales should, somehow, be taken into account by environmentalists around the world who continue to uphold the international image of Japan as a mechanized whale killing machine. It’s not the Japanese people who are killing whales any more than it’s the American people who are shooting wolves from airplanes.

As a foreigner out on a tour that actively promotes a participatory relationship with nature, the bigoted image of a nation of whale killers sometimes appeared exactly the opposite of what I actually witnessed there–as if the Japanese people were, in fact, the world’s most devoted congregation of cetacean lovers.

In my role as spokesperson for the intelligent whale, the playful whale, the interactive whale, I have recently visited several places in Japan where whalewatching is developing into an outright phenomenon. In some places, the same men who were operating shore whaling stations just a few short years ago, have now converted their killer boats to whalewatching facilities.

For those who would continue to disparage an entire people for the aggressiveness of a single rapacious resource industry, there is another crucial aspect of this issue that needs to be taken into account. Japanese culture has deep roots in Shinto and Buddhism. Both spiritual paths encourage a highly compassionate, sacred relationship between human beings and nature.


Iris Viewing

I discovered the essence of this relationship, not by reading books about the inscrutable Japanese or by studying abstruse religious texts, or for that matter, by listening to the many native promoters of Japanese culture that crossed my path. I learned it most unforgettably by attending one of the enormous urban parks that grace central Tokyo during a uniquely Japanese holiday called "Iris Viewing."

Imagine, a modern country that celebrates several national holidays predicated on the moment when various species of plants bloom or fruit.

I walked through the park, viewed the irises, and then found a bench to watch hundreds of people strolling past my outlook. An inordinate number of them paused in front of a large glade of ferns. They stared, smiled, some stood back to get the wider view, several moved in closer to run their hands just an inch away from the surface of the fronds without ever touching one. After this happened several times, I inferred that all these people were trying to gather to themselves some invisible green energy field that they felt emanated from the vegetation. Maybe some were also giving to the plants a bit of their own two-legged, mammalian energy.

This organization, Interspecies Communication Inc., was founded on the premise that the environmental crisis is a crisis in perception. In other words, nature will not thrive again until every human being in the world learns to honor and cherish the gift that nature bears for all who are willing and able to receive it. Japanese culture already teaches that wisdom right from its center.

Tragically, Japanese industry knows this abiding lesson no better than industry anywhere else in the world. The reasons go far beyond this little essay, although let it be said that big business operates with the same basic rules everywhere it is practiced. To maximize profit and insure growth seems anti-environmental by definition.

The new allergy

After five visits to Japan in five years, I draw this conclusion: Japanese culture holds a key piece of the puzzle that can help heal the universal human psychosis that thoughtlessly destroys nature. This piece is not words. It is not precisely an ethic or even a lesson we can teach our children in school. Talking to my Japanese colleagues about their largely unconscious perception of nature as a subtle energy field, most agreed that they all responded to nature that way. No one ever thought much about it. They didn’t think it was anything important. Certainly, none of them ever thought that a foreigner would find it so immensely significant. They seemed to agree that this unconscious sensibility towards nature existed very deep within the culture, like a background hum more than a precept. Yet they also agreed that it provided a major source of grounding in their own lives. When I mentioned to a friend that the rest of the human community would benefit immensely by hearing about this Japanese cultural regard for the energetic aspect of nature–even if by osmosis–she responded that everyone she knew felt it, although she didn’t feel that anyone could actually describe it. She could not tell by what process she got it, although it happened at a very young age.

But there’s a catch. The so-called "rest of the world" will never be able to hear about this individualized, perceptive relationship with nature for the precise reason that most of us have been taught too well that Japan is the world’s foremost despoiler of nature. It isn’t inaccurate given the fact that so many of us have such a limited experience of Japan. Add to this, the curious fact that the energetic regard for nature seems to end at the Japanese border.

For instance, although there are at least as many healthy dolphin and whale populations swimming near the Japanese coastline as anywhere else in the world, the Japanese whaling industry is busy trying to change international laws so it can kill every last whale around...Antarctica. It is the same with fisheries. The Japanese have some of the strictest regulations in the world governing their own offshore fishery. But they have been booted out of the protected waters of country after country, including the USA, Mexico, and new Zealand, usually for the reason of illegally taking fish to the point of collapsing the resource. Then there is the winsome case of the "new" allergy affecting people in Tokyo. Eyes are running because, apparently, the Japanese timber industry currently imports so many American, Canadian, and Indonesian logs that their own forests have re-grown to maturity. For the first time in several generations, enough tree pollen takes to the air each May and June to cause allergies.


Feeling Severe

By the end of the Japanese tour, the motivation to present this difficult subject had risen to the top of the lecture agenda. An example may be helpful.

When I spoke to the students at the college of broadcasting, I began by praising the deep individual regard for nature I had witnessed so often in Japan. Then I declared that Western people need to hear this message. We long to hear it. To know it. To live it. But, in fact, few people in the West would ever take any Japanese ecological message very seriously because we have been so thoroughly indoctrinated by the idea and the image of Japanese people as the world’s foremost whale killers.

"As people involved in Media, you need to know that many people in Europe and America see you, foremost, as whale killers. Each one of you is a whale killer." Those in my audience who understood my English sat up in their chairs. However, this brash statement was deemed so severe that my interpreter flat out refused to speak the words in Japanese. I insisted that she do so. She blanched. I promised her I would not leave the statement hanging. She relented, apologized to me and her audience, translated. She later told me she used the most polite language possible.

I then pointed out that the Japanese spiritual regard for nature was, potentially, a far more crucial export for all our mutual future than the Hondas and the Sonies. And, from that perspective, the Japanese whale killer image is incredibly counterproductive for those Western environmental organizations that trumpet it the loudest

The unconscionable business of whaling is actually a miniscule part of the Japanese economy. It supports eight or ten specialty restaurants and wholesale markets in four or five cities. That the issues surrounding this tiny industry could have ever developed into the defining feature of an entire culture clearly demonstrates how high a regard the rest of the world holds a protected whale population.

A show of hands of my young audience demonstrated that not one student had eaten whale meat. Furthermore, none of these students was even aware that whaling played any part in defining the Japanese image abroad. Obviously, the Japanese government has been very successful in suppressing any valid discussion about whaling within Japan. That the government continues to promote it so vigorously, does a great disservice to their own people.

I told the students that, clearly, the Japanese people face a serious public relations problem. Two challenges face them, specifically, in their chosen role as Japan’s future media producers. First, unless they desire to have their wonderful culture forever tainted by the whaling issue, they need to work very hard to stop whaling by opening up the Media to a real dialogue about the whaling issue and its tainting of Japanese culture worldwide.

Second, simultaneously, it is their job to invent new ways to package the ecological and spiritual message inherent in Japanese culture so that it can be better understood on the international cultural stage. This is, however, a very different art form than making beautiful nature documentaries. I do not know its actual format or even whether it is possible to imbue a sense of the sacred through a TV or movie screen. But it is their responsibility to experiment with their Media in an effort to seek out the new forms that can move the world to stand respectfully and appreciatively before a small grove of ferns. The rest of human culture–you and I–desperately need to hear their message.


  • ICERC (The International Cetacean Education and Research Council) is probably the foremost group within Japan, promoting living whales and dolphins. The group has been collaborating with Interspecies Communication Inc. since 1991. Check out the ICERC website for more info about their current activities.