By Dyske March 24th, 2010
This post is a response to Laurel Angelica, the content editor for TakePart.com (owned by Participant Media which produced “The Cove”), who kindly responded to my original post about the documentary film “The Cove”. Before you read this post, you might want to read her response. This response is co-authored with my friend Frank Luo, but we decided to use “I” to express our opinions because we did not want the readers to get confused that our opinions represent the opinions of the Japanese people in general. We’ll begin with the “most important point” Laurel raised:
The most important point we want to respond to – and it’s the heart of your entire piece – is that this film is NOT meant to be an indictment of the Japanese people. Completely the opposite. We’ve tried to make that clear in the film and in all of our marketing materials. It is very specifically exposing a small group of people – we maintain throughout the film that the greater population is unaware.
This argument is entirely indefensible. The signs to the contrary are everywhere. The film squarely attacks Japan as a nation, their policies, customs, and values, which is particularly apparent in its coverage of Japan’s whaling policies. The attack is not just directed against a small group of people while paying no attention to their nationality. Far from it. The Internet is now rife with hostile comments like “I hate Japs” in direct response to the film. My wife, who is an American, was told by her friends that if she watched “The Cove”, she wouldn’t want to be married to me. This cannot be unique to my wife, as the very reason why Richard O’Barry would find it necessary to write an article telling people that “boycotting Japan doesn’t make sense” must be because many audience members came out of the theater wanting to boycott Japan. So the effect of the film has been to incite anger and punitive actions against Japan. If this is “completely the opposite” of what the filmmakers intended, then they must be incredibly incompetent, because they have achieved an effect that is “completely the opposite” of what they intended, and their Academy Awards should be stripped from them.
But that is obviously not the case — these filmmakers could not possibly have achieved the effect they did by sheer accident. They had to have known exactly what they were doing. To say that the film is not trying to point their fingers at Japan is disingenuous at best and a complete lie at worst. In order to maximize the film’s impact, the filmmakers needed to sensationalize and moralize, and they did this by picking an easy target for the audience to project their own bad feelings onto, then showing the most visually shocking footage to inspire the greatest amount of guilt and anger possible. In that process, the audience was manipulated to feel all sorts of exciting emotions like thrill, suspense, horror, and best of all, a feeling of moral superiority. Afterward, they feel entitled or even obliged to attack Japan. In fact, this is consistent with your company’s stated goal:
TakePart.com’s parent company is Participant Media, which believes that a good story, well told, can make a difference. Participant’s films seek to entertain audiences first, and then invite them to participate in effective change.
Your company’s primary goal is to entertain your audience first, not to report objective and balanced facts. For the purpose of entertaining your audience, which is better? Simplistic polarization of good vs. evil where the heroes and the villains are easily identifiable? Or, reporting of balanced facts that challenges everyone to question their own behavior and assumptions? If the filmmakers wanted to avoid pointing fingers at a nation, the better approach would have been to show a variety of slaughters in different countries, so that the suffering of dolphins would be the one overriding theme. (In fact, penetrating the slaughtering site in Faroe Islands, Denmark would have been much easier with their predominantly Caucasian film crew.) But instead, Japan was singled out to maximize the effect of moral superiority, because it is better for Hollywood.
Take a look at this video about the slaughtering of dolphins on Faroe Islands, Denmark:
In this video above, the government spokesperson defended their practice in this manner:
It was rather disturbing to see so many very angry letters. Some of them quite abusive in fact. Mostly they came from US and UK but also Australia. People responding to some sensational images and not bothering to consider the context and the culture… I think a lot of people reacted to it because people who are doing it looked like you and me. These are blond hair, blue eyed Western Europeans behaving in the way people would otherwise consider something that aboriginals do.
I agree with the idea that there is a strong racial factor here. In order for certain people to feel superior about themselves on the basis of their race, they convince themselves that only “uncivilized” people, “others”, engage in practices they find barbaric. Evidence contradicting this perception then becomes a challenge of their sense of superiority. I believe this was a big part of what generated such anger toward the people of Faroes. In other words, the abusive anger expressed against the Faroes is primarily an emotional response to the perceived challenge against their own egos, and the actual activist cause is secondary, which is why they end up choosing a counter-productive method of picking a fight.
A good example of how Ric O’Barry himself looks at the people in Taiji as barbaric and uncivilized comes at the beginning of the film when he says: “Today they would kill me if they could. I’m not exaggerating. If these fishermen could catch me and kill me, they would.” Also, later on, he says with an air of superiority: “The way the law works in Japan, they can keep you in jail with no charges for 28 days. 90% of the convictions in Japan are obtained by confessions during those 28 days because they can torture you legally.” Again, the idea is to depict the Japanese as uncivilized, while completely ignoring the fact that the murder rate in the US is roughly 8 times higher than it is in Japan. Obviously O’Barry is not interested in being objective or fair. He just cherry-picks facts that suit his needs to support his ethnocentric values. The Cove is now making the Japanese people feel angry and defensive, which is not productive in stopping the practice. Even those who may have been sympathetic to O’Barry’s cause before the film would probably be against it now. How ironic would it be if another Hollywood product that O’Barry stars in were to undermine his own cause. “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”
this group of fisherman is brutally and inhumanely killing dolphins, a highly evolved species that is beloved worldwide (including in Japan)
I have already explained that this is not a valid justification for attacking the people of Taiji. Some Hindus may consider killing of dolphins to be more acceptable than killing of cows. You happen to have your own reason or priorities. This is cultural, and to demand that others conform to your own values is exactly what ethnocentrism is, and it is nothing more than an expression of prejudice. Furthermore your argument is anthropocentric, which basically comes down to this: The more similar something is to yourself, the more you feel it deserves to be treated better. The reason why you respond so strongly to killing of dolphins is because they behave similarly to we do. This prejudice goes far beyond different species. A good example is the American media coverage of missing children. When a black child goes missing, the media hardly pay attention to it, and even if they do, nobody pays attention to the coverage. But as soon as a white child goes missing, it is all over the front page of every newspaper. In some instances, they even get international coverage. In other words, the strength of response is a function of how similar something is to yourself.
When people see the suffering of others who are similar to them, they end up reacting to their own sense of self-preservation. In doing so, they are unknowingly treating others unfairly. So, this isn’t actually about intelligence or self-awareness. Many intellectuals have been executed in history because the majority of the people around them could not understand them. This made it easier for them to kill them. This is also why we do not think anything of killing plants. They are at the opposite end of the spectrum, and we can hardly identify ourselves with them.
we are more than happy to shine a light on ourselves and have done so often.
“We” in this statement refers to TakePart.com. Perhaps that is true about TakePart, but we are criticizing the film here. The film should stand on its own merits. Aaron Copland being a great American composer does not make Britney Spears a great musician. Does “The Cove” shine a light on the inhumane slaughtering of cows and pigs in the US? Does the film shine a light on the fact that the Americans are one of the worst offenders of the environmental pollution that led to the higher level of mercury in seafood? No, that would take the enjoyment away from the audience who was feeling good about themselves by pointing fingers at Japan.
You might now ask: Shouldn’t we be allowed to criticize what is happening in other nations even if we are guilty of it ourselves? The answer is yes, but my question is this: How effective is such a strategy in actually resolving any conflicts? Are you interested in feeling good about yourself, or are you interested in solving a problem? If such a strategy was indeed effective, I would be able to go into your house, find one small thing that you are guilty of (according to my values), post thousands of flyers criticizing you so that you could be shamed in public. And, I would not even bother trying to understand your perspective or values. On top of all this, how would you like it, if I happen to be guilty of the same thing in my own house? Do you think this is an effective way to resolve any conflict? No, and I think your film proves it. Your film has incited anger on both sides. The Japanese would have to be incredibly self-critical and ego-less to be able to accept such a morally charged attack on their nation. I doubt that they would be able to. They are only humans too. Inciting anger is not an effective way to resolve any conflicts. In my opinion, a better way to resolve this type of issues is to first focus on our own problems, then inspire (not force) others to do the same. Instead of taking part in finger pointing, modify our own behavior that could improve the world.
they were deceiving the Japanese public by disguising the meat, which is highly toxic, as whale meat and serving it to children
Again, if this were really the filmmakers’ intention, did they choose the right approach to solve this problem? Suppose a group of Japanese doctors are very concerned about the obesity problem among American children. How would you imagine they should approach this problem? Suppose they decided to make a sensational documentary film called “The Junk — A Big Country with Big Fat Kids”. They then expose the lies and hypocrisies of the junk food industry in the US through a team of all Japanese doctors who call themselves “Seven Samurais”. They try to film what goes on in the labs of these junk food companies, but they are stopped by angry security guards and employees. They visit diabetic children in a hospital, and one of the female members of Seven Samurais starts crying on camera. The Japanese audience relates to her and think, “Oh, how cruel and uncivilized Americans are.” They also visit a fried chicken restaurant where they have cute mascots and cartoon characters of chickens to attract children. They condescendingly ridicule the irony of adoring the chickens while eating them. The camera zooms in on an obese American parent with bacon grease and ketchup dripping from his mouth, and he is trying to stuff the same junk to his children. The camera then moves to the Japanese doctors and shows their expressions of despair and hopelessness.
What would probably happen if such a film were to be made, is that it would put the Americans in a defensive and indignant mode. Unless these Japanese doctors are utterly oblivious to the impact their own nationality would have on their criticism of the American culture, they would not make such a film. It would be a serious disservice to their own cause, unless all they are interested in is to win prestigious film awards in Japan by giving the Japanese audience an easy way to feel superior to the Americans.
if the Japanese public knew this was happening they would want to stop it
Perhaps this may have been true if the filmmakers approached the problem more appropriately. Instead, your cause was essentially exploited by the Hollywood filmmakers whose careers would now be booming.
we are not West vs. East, we are activist vs. inactivist
This point presupposes that everyone is against the killing of dolphins, or would be if they knew about it, and that anyone who does not do anything about it either does not know that it happens, or has some self-interest in preventing it from being stopped. What is not being considered is that maybe their reason for not wanting to stop it is just as genuine and legitimate as the filmmakers’ belief that no dolphin should be killed for any reason. So, “inactivism” is not, in my opinion, a fair label for those who do nothing about it. I believe that this is also a manifestation of ethnocentrism. If you don’t know enough about something, giving it the benefit of the doubt and making the effort to learn more about it with an open mind is a responsible and respectable thing to do. This attitude of “You’re either with us, or against us” manipulates people by forcing them to rush to judgment for fear of being labeled as “inactivist”, and by the use of this manipulation, you are in effect promoting ignorance. Furthermore, these self-righteous activists who are just looking for a quick way to get a dose of superiority are harming our human relations and creating unnecessary conflicts which can lead to physical confrontations and even wars. Those who love to polarize issues are usually not interested in solving any problems; their primary interest is to win, to be right, and to prove their own worth by asserting their superiority to others. The fact that “The Cove” provoked people to boycott Japan shows the utter ignorance of the incredible amount of damage that the Americans have caused to our environment including the mercury emission. If they knew, they would have understood that they are in no position to call a boycott on any nation, and their action would have been more respectful, understanding, and pragmatic. The sensational style of the film exploits their ignorance. Truly objective, honest, and intelligent people would not fall for it. If you want to make a lasting change in the world, it is not the quantity but the quality of support that matters.
This exploitation of ignorance is consistent with the stated goal of Participant Media (the company that produced “The Cove”), and it is an alarming trend in the entertainment industry. Many actors, filmmakers, and musicians associate themselves with various causes as a way to market themselves. Much of activism today is a form of entertainment where objective and balanced views are discarded in favor of sensationalism and instant gratifications. For these self-serving people, these causes are nothing more than fashion statements. They just jump from one to the next to boost their own identities and to maximize their marketing effect. This frightens me: After all, the same method of exploiting ignorance was used by various dictators in history to convince their people to act. It is the easiest and most effective way to mobilize them.
The biggest problem we face in terms of ethnocentrism is vividly reflected in this comment I found:
NO EXCUSE! SICKENING! HEARTLESS! PEOPLE WHO DO THIS ARE NO GOOD IN MY BOOK AND I DON’T HAVE TO JUSTIFY MY FEELINGS SO DON’T EVEN ASK ME!
This is exactly the type of audience “The Cove” is optimized to appeal to. In other words, reason or intellectual integrity does not matter. Their feelings override everything else, so justification is not needed. This is the same force that allowed many wholesale injustices in history. People became aware of the injustice only after the cooler heads prevailed, when they realized how distorted our “feelings” can be. Activism threatens to cross the line into bigotry when the sense of reason and fairness is ignored in making judgment, and there is no more rationale to one’s actions than just because a group of people “are no good in [one’s] book.”
Again, we need to distinguish the film from you as a person or your organization, since we are criticizing the film here. You personally might respect the Japanese culture but the film certainly does not. Just the fact that the filmmakers made no attempt to learn anything about the Japanese culture is a serious expression of disrespect. As I wrote in my original post, I agree that tradition cannot be used as an excuse to do anything we want. However, the point of bringing up “tradition” is to ask people to learn more about it, and not to rush to judgment based on the facade, because it has a long history and is not a simple matter to explain. The filmmakers are clearly ignorant of the Japanese culture and show no real desire to learn anything about it. If they demonstrated their deep understanding of the Japanese culture, the film could actually be effective in achieving their goal. But the film instead attacks without demonstrating any effort to understand. It is also interesting to note that the spokesperson for Faroe Islands points out the same problem. Those who sent them hateful letters were just looking for an easy way to feel good about themselves. They are not interested in learning about Faroe’s culture.
does it make sense to perpetuate a brutal ‘tradition’ that has no real benefit to the greater population?
These dolphins are now eating the fish which is in short supply. Yes, I understand that the depletion of the ocean was caused by us humans, so blaming the dolphins would not make any sense, but unfortunately what happened, happened. We cannot go back in time and fix it. Given that the fish is in short supply, and some of them are in danger of extinction, slaughtering the dolphins to prevent them from eating the fish is actually benefiting the “greater population” from your own human-centric view. If you do believe that human beings are superior to other species and deserves to be treated better, then it follows that a species like dolphins should come close to humans in terms of how they should be treated (because they are “intelligent” and “self-aware” like we are), and cows and pigs would be lower down your list. But this would also means that whatever benefits the humans should have the highest priority, which would justify the killing of dolphins to protect our seafood. The Shinto religion in Japan, on the other hand, does not see any life form to be superior to another. It worships nature in general and sometimes even trees have a divine meaning. In this light, even humans are not above getting killed by other species as food.
My view of this article is far more negative, and parts of it can be called textbook examples of ethnocentrism. To wit:
The dolphin slaughter and reactions to it should also flag some awkward questions for Japan and its foreign relations. To be blunt — which planet does Japan live on? Taiji is angry that the filmmakers used underhanded spying methods to expose the killing. It also argues that outsiders should respect Japan’s freedom and special culture.
Here you see ethnocentrism in one of its worst manifestations — the externalization of the subject of ethnic/cultural demonization to such a degree, that the language actually implies that the subjects of said demonization are not of this planet, i.e. are not human or even terrestrial in their way of thinking. The obvious assumption being that the way that the writer thinks is the way all of humanity/all life on this planet thinks. Considering how much life in general is destroyed year after year by the developed nations’ practices, especially the consumption of fossil fuels, this is an untenable, hypocritical position just like most ethnocentric positions.
But reading the whole article, it goes even further. The author denounces the Japanese hesitance to allow foreigners with permanent residence to vote. This is ridiculous. Election eligibility is determined by each nation, and most choose to use citizenship as the criteria:
…which is a nation’s sovereign right, as is the determination of what rights it might grant to non-citizens. “Permanent resident” as a status is not even defined in the same way in each country, much less the rights conferred by that status. Nations that have granted voting rights to non-citizens have only done so recently, and are very definitely in the minority among nations in the world, so the assertion here is not that this is a universal right but that “because we decided to implement this policy in the last decade or two, you must also do so whether you liked it or not”, that the author’s culture is automatically the norm for all humanity, and whatever changes it decides to make in the laws of its own nation must be accepted by all other nations immediately.
Another example of ethnocentrism is shown in this quote:
Whaling is even tinier in its contribution to employment and the economy, and only a minuscule minority of Japanese eat whale meat, even once a year. Yet the industry has managed to capture the government and present itself as the flag bearer for Japanese civilization — which is nonsense. Japanese civilization and culture are far richer than whaling.
I believe that this paragraph reflects a very non-Japanese conceit — that an industry or tradition should be only as valuable and significant as reflected by such factors as the number of people employed in it etc. That is a Darwinistic, survival-of-the-fittest sort of view that essentially uses economic impact as the primary or even only criterion by which the worthiness of traditions to receive respect is measured, and is not necessarily the way everyone thinks. It disguises a value judgment as an accepted fact — the author’s own society may use economics as the main criteria in valuing traditions, as the example of his hometown shows, but does that necessarily mean that the Japanese feel the same way? Not at all — the Japanese place a high value on just about any tradition, even ones that are economically insignificant in terms of the percentage of GDP produced.
For example, while I (Frank) lived in Japan, I knew someone who was a maker of Japanese swords. I asked him how he learned (expecting that he might have come from a family of swordsmiths), and he surprised me completely by telling me that he went to college on a swordsmithing scholarship. Yes, the Japanese government sponsors the study of many minor aspects of Japanese culture to such a degree, that it not only has such things as available programs of study in university, but is willing to go so far as to pay full university scholarships to some people to preserve such traditions.
I have no idea what the trade of swordsmithing generates in terms of the nation’s GDP, but I would bet good money that it is smaller than that generated by whaling. Yet it is respected to such a degree that the government (and society at large) goes to enormous lengths and expense to preserve it. I am surprised that someone who writes about Japan regularly (for Japan Times, no less…) and so must be to some degree a student of Japan and its culture would fail to appreciate this aspect of Japanese culture.
Japan has much to give Asia and the rest of the world, but if it keeps putting its head in the sand over minor issues, Japan will be the first to suffer.
This reveals the author’s fundamental misunderstanding of the Japanese position. The literal issue at point may indeed be minor from an economical point of view, but what is at stake here is ethnocentrism. Asian cultures in general are still foreign, mysterious, and incomprehensible to the Westerners. So, if the Asians were to give into this type of “minor issues”, it could open a floodgate of ethnocentric attacks from the West. It’s much easier and more effective to stop it at this stage before the Western values can be established as the de facto standard of human values. In fact, Western values have already dominated the world. The East has eagerly embraced Western values whenever they made sense, but this has emboldened the West to the point where they feel it’s okay to unilaterally force their values on the rest of the world. The American invasion of Iraq was a prime example of it. This tendency of the West must be kept in check, and this is no “minor” issue.
Towards the end of the article, the author appeals to practical concerns, essentially by stating that if China were to flaunt the dolphin lovers of the world, it might get away with it because it is powerful, but that it would be unwise for Japan to do so. Again, this appeal is made in a highly counterproductive manner — by bluntly stating that Japan should give in and forfeit one of its institutions because it is simply not powerful enough to resist the foreign influence that demands it, this argument further reinforces the impression that this is an instance of outsiders forcing Japan to accept non-Japanese values, which will only further inflame them. Making the argument by comparisons against China complicates the issue even more, framing it as an instance wherein Japan is not only called upon to assert the equality of its values with those of the West, but its place in the world against that of China as well. These two points can only further entrench the Japanese in their position by making the issue into a matter of identity and national pride.
This also leads me to think about the psychological impact of “The Cove” on those Westerners whose primary interest is Japan. Since the film is so polarizing and morally charged, I would imagine that these Westerners, especially the ones living in Japan, would feel a significant amount of pressure to defend the film. I actually find this unfortunate. These are individuals who could help reconcile the cultural differences between the East and the West, but because the film has such a strong polarizing effect, each side responds with strong emotions. This in turn will wound each other deeper and deeper until the conflict leaves scars on both.
My main criticism of the film is how they approached the problem, not so much what they stated. Once the sensational effects of the film wear off, I believe people will see right through the trickery and manipulations of the filmmakers. I believe, in 10 to 20 years, when we watch this film again, we would be shocked by the blatant ethnocentrism, and I suspect that you would regret your association with it. If you and Ric O’Barry truly cared about the cause, I would suggest that you denounce the film now. I believe that it would contribute greatly to the resolution of this conflict. In particular, if O’Barry denounced the film, the Japanese would probably drop or ease their defense, and be more willing to listen to him. From a practical point of view, not many Japanese would care whether slaughtering of dolphins continued or stopped. This means that if you approach this conflict appropriately and respectfully, with some patience, it would probably be possible to have your way regardless of whether your cause is justifiable or not. Again, what is more important to you? Your cause or “winning”? If you are not willing to concede to the fact that your sensationalizing, moralizing, and polarizing approach was inappropriate, then fighting ethnocentrism becomes a higher cause for the Japanese to take part in. If they give into this, what else would the West impose on their culture and on others? So, don’t expect the Japanese to concede. They are humans just like you are; they wouldn’t want to give you the satisfaction of winning either. So the fight will go on forever.
I found a useful article on ethnocentrism by Ken Barger, professor of anthropology at Indiana University. What is particularly relevant in this context is his chapter titled “So what can we do about ethnocentrism?”. He argues that we are all ethnocentric, and there is no way around it. So, he says, “The first step involves an attitude: we are the learners.” This attitude is utterly lacking in The Cove and its supporters. Barger also suggests: “One of the most effective means for recognizing that ethnocentrism is inhibiting our understandings is to watch for reactions.” There are plenty of reactions that we can observe in the film, but the filmmakers are completely oblivious to them, so convinced that their own values are superior. Barger writes: “We can also observe their reactions. If we blissfully go on in our misconceptions but they don’t respond the way we would, this is also an important clue that our assumptions are not working in the situation.” He then continues “We need to be careful, however, in how to be involved.” [The emphasis his.] And, “Before we act, we need to evaluate several issues: What is our basis for becoming involved?” and “What are their meanings and functions regarding the situation?” Please read the whole article for yourself.
What we are debating here calls into question the very foundation of our existence, and so it is no easy matter to resolve. But from the sincere tone of you and O’Barry, I have hope that you guys can recognize the inappropriateness of the film. I believe that would be the beginning of the true resolution.
Here is another Japanese perspective. Beautifully written and argued.
Here is another Japanese perspective by someone who is familiar with the town of Taiji.
For a little comic relief, check out a South Park episode on this topic.