An Open Letter to Japan from Dr. Roger Payne

A Sympathetic Voice: An Open Letter to Japan

When Christchurch, New Zealand was largely destroyed by a series of major earthquakes, the epicenters of those quakes lay along a fault line that runs very close to my house. Although we were exposed to the same violence that Christchurch was, and felt over 500 strong quakes, our house survived. That experience gave me the greatest empathy and concern for your country when on March 11, 2011, the Tohoku earthquake triggered the tsunami that overwhelmed the nuclear reactors at Fukushima.

My concern and empathy for the welfare of close friends in Japan has only grown since then. I have tried to find ways to keep the world’s attention and sympathy more strongly focused on helping those in your country who have lost so much and who face more losses, as contamination from the water cooling the reactor elements continues to overflow and affect sea life.

One of the main obstacles in enlisting the help of others here in New Zealand, as well as in the Americas and Europe, is the anger many people are expressing about the Taiji dolphin hunt. I see evidence every day that the hunt is making the world less interested in providing the support that will be so important as the effects of radiation on seafood in your coastal waters (particularly the waters near Fukushima) increase.

In the interests of full disclosure: I am opposed to killing dolphins and whales, though I accept the fact that what you eat is a matter for you and your country to decide, not for me and mine. I am, nevertheless, saddened by the fact that just at the time when we in the rest of the world ought to be coming forward to help your country most strongly and willingly, these practices are triggering a major reduction in compassion internationally—a decline that is caused for what I imagine is a very small return.

It is not just the dolphin hunt but the technique used to kill them that is producing such a major negative attitude towards Japan. Following a drive hunt, dolphins not destined for the aquarium trade are moved into shallow water where a fisherman forces a sharp-tipped steel rod through the top of the dolphin’s head to damage its central nervous system. When the steel rod is withdrawn a plug is inserted in the wound to prevent blood from entering the water and turning it red.

This procedure produces the types of gruesome images that stick in one’s mind, and every time they are recalled do great damage to Japan. My own country has experienced the same damage ever since the horrific photographs from Abu Ghraib appeared. Such damage runs deep, lasts long, spawns prejudice and recruits enemies. It is a terrible price to pay for any practice—particularly one that contributes very little to a nation when it is working to recover from one of the worst natural disasters in human history.

But the worst damage the dolphin hunt does to your people is done to those who eat the meat. My institute, Ocean Alliance, has spent most of the past 20 years studying the effects of toxic metals and man-made pollutants on ocean life. Our research vessel Odyssey circled the world and sampled over 900 whales, dolphins and porpoises from all oceans. It produced the first global assessment of toxic metals and toxic pollutants in animals that feed highest on ocean food chains. We found such animals are so contaminated by the concentrations of synthetic chemicals and toxic metals that many are already unsafe for human consumption.

As was famously said: “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion but not to their own facts.” The dangers to human health of eating dolphin meat are matters of fact, not opinion; some of the scientists who have contributed most to human understanding of the contamination of seafood by synthetic chemicals are your fellow countrymen.

Please understand my main concern in writing this letter: I am an admirer of your country; its rule of law, its culture, its Kabuki theater, its food, its architecture, its gardens, but most of all its people. I have visited Japan several times and have many friends with whom I have spent wonderful days. I mean no offense to your country and am aware that having been born in the USA, I am in a very weak position to offer moral lessons to anyone about anything. My motives here are plain: because of my own experience with earthquakes, I know how shattering they are and am heartbroken to see what you are facing from the effects of the Tohoku quake. I would like to help encourage the world to do the right thing—to offer its wholehearted help in the forthcoming months and years as the effects of nuclear radiation increase. (I feel it is the least I can do, given my country’s history in exposing your people to radiation.) I am finding that a major obstacle to achieving this is the deep anger caused by the Taiji hunt. I believe that if that obstacle is removed your beautiful country will return sooner to the state in which I remember it with such affection.

I wish you well,

Roger Payne

President and Founder of Ocean Alliance