“Everything Starts with a Dream”: An Interview with Ric O’Barry
Dolphin defender discusses the latest at the notorious Taiji cove, his plans for a star-studded concert in Tokyo, and his work in Indonesia
Marine mammal defender Ric O’Barry was in Japan in early February to monitor the situation in Taiji and to discuss his new project, a musical event that could end up being larger than the Rolling Coconut Review, which took place in April of 1977. The Rolling Coconut Review was a benefit concert also known as Japan Celebrates the Whale. The concert was organized by O’Barry, and featured Jackson Browne, John Sebastian, Richie Havens, Odetta, Warren Zevon, Eric Andersen, Lonnie Mack, Japanese singer and actor Izumiya Shigeru, and a jazz-funk band with keyboardist Richard Tee, drummer Steve Gadd, guitarist Eric Gale, guitarist Cornell Dupree and bassist Gordon Edwards.
Many of those artists are no longer with us. O’Barry, however, is still grinding away at important environmental issues at age 73.
On my way to meet O’Barry at the Keio Plaza Hotel, located in Tokyo’s Shinjuku District, I found a huge advertisement that promoted tourism in Wakayama Prefecture, where Taiji is located and where the dolphin slaughter takes place every year. Ironically, the advertisement included a beautiful underwater shot of several bottlenose dolphins, which are the mammals O’Barry is trying to prevent from being chopped up as a toxic food source, and from being sold off to dolphinarium shows. When I took O’Barry to see the ad, he shook his head in amazement and disdain. We then headed back to the Keio Plaza hotel for a long interview.
Stack Jones: How are you treated by Japanese immigration officials when you arrive in the country?
Ric O’Barry: I’m taken to a holding room. Since I’m usually travelling from Miami, about 17 hours, I’m exhausted and lay on the floor. After several four or five hours they bring me into another room where there’s a speakerphone and somebody asking questions to the officers who are interpreting for me.
“What is your purpose here?”
“I’m a tourist.”
“Where are you going?”
“I’m going to Wakayama”
“What are you going to do there?”
“I don’t know. Do you have any suggestions?”
“Are you going to Taiji?”
“Yes, I’ll be going to Taiji.”
“What will you be doing there?”
“Praying for the dolphins that are dying there.” This response always catches them off guard.
“Are you getting paid while you are here?”
If I say I am going to meet with you, for example, they would call you and ask you questions. One time my friend C.W. Nicol wrote a note for me in Japanese that said something to the effect, “This is my friend Ric O’Barry, please leave him alone.” They actually let me pass through on that occasion. However, one time they called him and woke him up. So, anyone I name that lives here will be questioned upon my arrival. Now I just say I’m alone and I’m traveling alone.
This reminds me of the time I went to Oarai Beach, when they were reporting on closing it down due to radiation contamination. I stopped to take some photos, because the day before there was a huge protest of Japanese citizens that wanted the experimental reactors in the area shutdown. The police, dressed in black suits, and looking like secret service, approached me and asked for my passport, which I gave them.
I’m here to work with the Japanese people. I’m not against them. When I came here back in 1977, it was to end the boycott of Japan. That was my purpose. At that time, there was a large anti-whaling movement happening in America and Europe. [A group called] Save The Whales had taken out full-page newspaper ads in The New York Times, The Miami Herald, and The Los Angeles Times, which must have cost a fortune. The article read, “Save The Whales: Boycott Japan.” What was happening in America was Japanese — Asians I should say — children were getting beaten on playgrounds and called “Jap Whale Killers.” Dr. Clifford Uyeda, a pediatrician, who was also the president of the Japanese American Citizen League who had been treating many children for beatings, contacted me to find out how to stop children from being targeted. He asked me to go to Japan with him and help stop this boycott. We began to put together the Rolling Coconut Review, in Sacramento. Actually, California governor Jerry Brown put that performance together. Joni Mitchell performed there, Jackson Browne, Country Joe McDonald, and Fred Neil. Fred Neil was really the heart of it. When Fred got involved, everybody wanted to jump on the bandwagon. We then came to Japan and it got too big. So, we had to slow it down. It had to be paid for; I had to find money to pay for it. Which is what I have to do for this next one. I’m putting this one together with no money as well. At this point, it’s just a dream. But everything starts with a dream.
Photo by Stack Jones
You’re talking a lot about this past music event. Is this new concert the thing on your mind for Japan?
Yes. Before coming to Japan, I was in LA, having meetings at the Sunset Marquis Hotel discussing this concert, which I am co-producing with my son, Lincoln, and which we’re calling “Tokyo Celebrates the Dolphin.”
You just returned to Tokyo from your stay in Taiji. Have you had any meetings with the mayor of Taiji?
No, he refuses to meet with me. He doesn’t answer my letters.
As you know, when you and I first began communications, I had contacted every university — fisheries universities, agricultural universities — Japanese film festivals and Japanese nature organizations, and every one of them either never responded or flat out rejected having you as a speaker, and refused to show The Cove. None of them even wanted to discuss the matter. Tohoku University told me that if they showed the film, and allowed you to come as a guest speaker, the Japanese nationalist movement would come with their vans and loud speakers, protest the event and interrupt the community.
There’s no payoff in any of that. But I still think the mercury poisoning issues is important. The fishermen were giving the dolphin meat away for free to schools, to keep the “cultural” argument alive. First, this is a bogus argument because they’ve only been doing this since 1969. I did meet with two Taiji councilmen who saw the scientific evidence that dolphin meat is toxic, and they acted on that information and removed it from the compulsory school lunch menu. If they took it out of the school lunch program because it wasn’t fit for their children, then it shouldn’t be sold to unsuspecting, innocent Japanese people. They continue to do that, and the Taiji mayor is guilty of that. So, now it’s not an animal rights issues; from that day on it became a human rights issue.
At a Nagoya school gymnasium I spoke with a thousand kids. I said, “Here’s what you can do as a school project. Go to Taiji. I’ll pay for your transportation. Across the street from where they slaughter the dolphin you’ll find a market that sells the meat. Take some of it home, and have it tested for mercury. If it tests positive for mercury, methyl mercury, PCB’s… I suggest you write a group letter to minister Noda, the minister of Japan’s health and safety, and ask why it is not labeled as poison. At least the consumer can make an intelligent decision of they want to buy it or not.” Of course, none of them ever did that. Their teachers probably discouraged them. It’s called kata — you don’t break ranks. You don’t take sides with the foreigners. We’re all like blades of grass. We’re all in this together. So, that’s why nobody does anything.
There are two distinct societies in Japan. Gaijin [slang for “Westerner”] means “not one of us.” We’re outsiders. But we can’t really bash Japan for that. Look at America, there is an air or arrogance and ignorance that permeates every aspect of that culture. Anyway… are you accepted in Taiji when you go down there?
It’s just like if you go there. You’ll never be accepted either. Even Enson Inoue — who’s an MMA champion and has lived here for 25 years, reads, and speaks the language, but he’s from Hawaii — he’ll always be a gaijin. So, they don’t accept me and I don’t expect them to. My job is to keep this issue out there. It’s hard to keep any issue alive. It’s like the Fukushima radiation disaster. It’ll be in the news for a while but then the media moves on to some other issue. Haiti is a really good example. When the earthquake happened all the media of the world merged on Haiti. Today, there are still 400,000 people living in the mud, but the media has moved on. We’ve been very lucky to keep Taiji in the news. We had the Empire States building lit up in red for three days. I have to keep pulling rabbits out of the hat to keep Taiji in the news.
Photo by Stack Jones
Why is the focus on Taiji and not Iwate? Taiji slaughters about 2,000 dolphin a year. In Iwate it’s about 20,000.
It’s difficult to photograph Iwate’s activities because their action takes place off shore.
What happened in Taiji when you were down there the past few days? Did you go down there alone?
I went there alone, but I have two Japanese teammates that are there. There is also another guy down there from California, so I have three people monitoring. When I was down there this time, I saw approximately 100 dolphins, including bottlenose dolphins, slaughtered. It’s a schizophrenic cove. Some days, it's peaceful and one of the most beautiful places in the world. It’s a National Park first of all, and what these guys are doing is probably illegal.
It sounds like they’re turning public property into a private enterprise.
Exactly! They’re putting up signs that warn against trespass, and they’ve installed barbed wire fences. There is also a trail for walking. It’s one of the most beautiful trails I have ever seen. It goes on for miles, actually going right through the cove, and a gorgeous cave. And these guys have painted it over, and blocked it all with barbed wire.
Is it shut off more than it was two years ago?
Much more. It would take a Japanese person to file a lawsuit, and challenge the legality of the park’s private use.
How do the police treat you when you’re down there?
On the morning I showed up it was still dark, approximately five in the morning. When the sun comes up is when the boats go out. So we’re there documenting it. As soon as our car pulls up all the police surround us with their lights on. They always have their lights on.
So they have advance notice that you’re coming?
As soon as I arrive in Japan and put my fingers in the customs machine, they’re on notice, because everything’s computerized. Anyway, it’s like a welcoming committee. They take off their hats. They bow, “O'Barry-san you’re here.” They’ve been chosen because they speak English. It’s not like we’re the enemy. I wish the Miami police were as polite and professional, and respectful. They couldn’t be more respectful, and friendly. They’re just doing their job. Their job is to keep the peace.
Do you feel threatened when you go down there?
Only by the young Yakuza (Japanese mafia) wannabees that want to make a name for themselves. Or an angry fisherman that makes a bad decision. But I know how to avoid that kind of stuff.
Whatever happened to the two city councilmen down there that stopped dolphin meat from being given to kids at school?
One of them is a hero, in my opinion. He was ostracized in the community for being outspoken against it. He became a taxi driver in Tokyo. His career was ruined.
You’ve talked a lot about mercury contamination in the dolphin meat. How about whale meat, is that safe to consume?
All the dolphin and whale meat that we’ve tested have all come back positive for high levels of mercury. Boyd Harnell, who won two Genesis Awards for his journalistic work in the Japan Times, came down with me to Taiji, and we tested the meat, which was sold at local stores. The meat tested extremely high in methyl-mercury. All of the whale and dolphin meat that is caught around the coastal areas of Japan is contaminated. We then went back to the store, which is a chain grocery store in Japan, and confronted the manager. We showed him the data, and told him, “You’re selling poison”. The manager took us into the back room, and got on the phone with his boss. The end result was we got the meat taken out of 136 supermarkets.
Is it still not being sold in those markets today?
Yes, [it’s not being sold.]
So, that’s a success.
Yes, but now the fishermen are angrier, because this hits their pocketbook. At the cove today, they have a police station that taxpayers are paying for, there’s a Coast Guard vessel, scores of police. They’re spending millions on security.
For a handful of guys?
For a handful of guys. For bringing shame to the entire country. The bottom line is, when you break it down, it’s to sell the meat.
Has the amount of dolphin being slaughtered gone down since the release of The Cove?
It has. It’s gone down dramatically.
Yes, because the consumers are learning about the facts. If the Japanese housewife, because that’s who buys it, had any idea it was contaminated, they wouldn’t buy it. It’s like the supply and demand of any product. These people are more concerned about clean food that we are in the West. They just don’t have the information available to them that we take for granted. Because they’re not given the information, which is controlled by the government. As you know.
Does it help you feel that you accomplished what you wanted. Not the notoriety of it, but the exposure to the issue?
Yes. What (the film The Cove) did was create an allegiance to the issue. That’s what it did. It’s a revolutionary film in that way. People were jumping out of their seat and saying, “What can I do?” That’s why the people that saw that film are currently down in Taiji. That’s why they are there. That’s why 17 people from the Sea Shepherd are there now. I keep my distance from them, by the way, because we do different things. The volunteers would call me aside, and say, “I saw the film, that’s why I’m here.” And there are thousands of people like that around the world. So, it was very helpful, and it will continue to be. It’s like Rachel Carson’s, Silent Spring. It’s the kind of story that will be around forever. Eventually, people will see it in Japan.
What can Japanese people do? What do you want Japanese people to do? It’s obvious that foreigners are aware of all of this, but what about Japanese?
Japanese should be responsible consumers and stop buying tickets for dolphin shows, and stop purchasing the meat. It’s the capture of the dolphins that’s the economic underpinning of the dolphin slaughter. The dolphin slaughter is not economically viable any longer. They’re only getting about $400 to $500 for a dead dolphin’s meat. I know they’re getting at least $154,000 for a live dolphin. I know that because I have a contract for Ocean World Casino in the Dominican Republic. I don’t like throwing numbers out there unless I have absolute proof.
What happened to the Ocean World lawsuit against you? That was dismissed, wasn’t it?
No, I’m still dealing with that. We’ve been through three [lawsuits]. There are currently five lawsuits against me. Well, there’s a new one against me in the Philippines for interference with commerce. These are frivolous SLAPP suits, acceptable in Broward County, [Florida]. If they were filed in California, they would’ve been thrown out.
I used to live on the west coast of Japan, in a place called Fukui. Fukui has a place called Tojinbo, which is a well-known suicide jumping point. It’s unbelievably beautiful there. Next to Tojinbo is a dolphin show. The dolphins are kept in small pool size tanks, and it’s really rundown.
There are 51 [dolphin shows] here. In a country the size of California, that’s amazing. There aren’t that many in all of Europe! As bad as places like the Seaquarium are, at least they are clean environments. Here they’re rundown. The water is filthy dirty.
Case in point is the Taiji Whale Museum. The dolphins get caught, but here they don’t pay $150,000. Foreigners do. Most of the 100 or so that were caught last week will go to various shows around Japan. These are disposable dolphins for our disposable society. As long as people keep paying to see these shows, they’ll keep brining them in.
You’re off to Indonesia tomorrow. Why?
The worst dolphin show on the planet is in Indonesia. It’s a traveling dolphin show. It’s unbelievable. We’re talking about a portable tank, where dolphins ride in a truck. They put a tent up, and bleachers, take the dolphin out of the truck and put them in there. They get as much money as they can, and then move on to the next town.
How do they transport the dolphins?
In a box. Like a coffin. We’ve partnered with a really good group of young people over there. They don’t have any money. I don’t know how they do it because Indonesia is where corruption is the worst. For some reason it’s the Department of Forest that’s responsible for protecting dolphins. It’s kind of like the fisheries department protecting trees. The group is called JAAN, Jakarta Animal Aid Network. They’ve signed a contract with the government to confiscate all 54 dolphins in the Indonesian shows. There’s a dolphin in a swimming pool in a restaurant in Bali, in really bad condition, for example. Their job is to confiscate them. Bring them back to the national park in Karimunjawa, Java to rehabilitate them. My son built a huge sea pen that’s a mile off shore; it’s in the national park, and is exactly where they were captured. Our plan is to confiscate these dolphins and bring them back to the sea pen, rehabilitate them and release them into the national park. However, the rug was pulled out form under us, as the people that own the traveling dolphin show, put a stop to it.
But you said that JAAN has a government contract to confiscate those dolphins?
Yes, but that doesn’t mean anything. It’s only good if the government honors it. So, you’re asking what I’m going to be doing. Well, there’s an event sponsored by the US Embassy, and they’re going to show The Cove. I’m the guest of honor and all of the journalists are going to be there. Of course the Forest Department is going to be there as well. I’m going to point at those corrupt motherfuckers and name names and I’m going to be in a lot of trouble when I do that, because they’re going to be coming after me. That’s the reason I’m going there, to expose those guys. They don’t know I’m going to do this. I’m going to need a bodyguard, because after I do, I’m going to be in a lot of trouble. Then we go to Bali because there are a couple of really bad facilities down there. Of course the media will go along, as we’re going to expose them as well.
Editor’s UPDATE: O’Barry’s mission to Indonesia was a huge success. Read a report from his blog here.
What are you doing to protect yourself?
I don’t know. I’m hoping the US Embassy has that covered. Anyway, let me tell you how I operate. When I’m in Taiji, it’s so intense, so over the top that I can’t think about Indonesia. I’m thinking about what’s in front of me. I’m still in Japan, but at this time tomorrow, I will actually be in Indonesia. That’s when I’ll be able to answer your question. It’s all about showing up. What I have to do is usually made known to me, just before I actually do it. It’s not like I actually have a plan.
The entire world is contaminated. So how do we turn that around?
Well, if we can’t fix the cove, we can’t. That cove is a microcosm of the rest of the world. When I stand there, as I did yesterday, looking down at it, one day it’s tranquil and peaceful, and the next it’s the most violent body of water you ever saw in your life. And it’s very small, not much larger than this room here. If we can’t fix that, what goes on there, how can we fix the bigger picture? That’s why I stay focused on that. What’s the point in moving on to bigger issues, when we can’t even fix that small body of water?
When are you going to retire?
When are you going to sit in your Miami Beach home and …
I wish I could. I don’t really like doing this. It’s not like I want to be doing this. I never set out to do this. You know, one thing leads to another. There’s a phone call, and OK, I’ll do that. And it leads to the next thing, and the next thing and before you know it, 45 years have gone by.
What would you rather be doing?
Hanging out with my lovely Danish bride, Helene, and our 8-year-old daughter, Mai Li. There’s nothing more important than that. Nothing! She’s growing up without me. I got my priorities all fucked up.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length. A more complete version is available at Stone’s blog, Nihongo News.