Ambassador Kennedy Criticizes Japan's Dolphin Hunt

The dolphin roundup by a Japanese community is an annual hunt. But this time, new U.S. ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy has weighed in with displeasure. That puts her on the side of several wildlife and animal rights advocates who've condemned the annual slaughter. The Japanese defend it as traditional — just as the U.S. does with native Alaskans who kill whales.

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Some other news now. Each year, Japanese fishermen herd dolphins into coves. They select choice ones for marine parks and they kill the others. The dolphin hunt goes on for several months each year. But as NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports, this time it has sparked criticism from the brand new U.S. ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN, BYLINE: Ambassador Kennedy tweeted that she's deeply concerned by what she calls the inhumane-ness of the hunt. She says the U.S. government opposes this kind of hunting. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf says the ambassador's comments line up with U.S. policy.

MARIE HARF: We are concerned with both the sustainability and the humane-ness of the Japanese dolphin hunts. The ambassador was expressing our view that we have made public for a long time.

SHOGREN: But Kennedy's brief tweet gives new exposure to the issue. Japanese officials defend the hunt as a traditional fishing practice done according to Japanese law. They point out their critics also kill animals for food.

MELISSA SEHGAL: There's nothing cultural, traditional about this. It's all about profit and greed.

SHOGREN: Activist Melissa Sehgal says marine parks pays tens of thousands of dollars per dolphin. Segal represents Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. The group has been on the ground documenting the hunts in Taiji, Japan since September.

SEHGAL: We have seen almost 1,200 dolphins driven into the cove. Of those, 628 have been killed and 149 have been taken captive.

SHOGREN: Scientists have published a study on the way these Japanese fishermen kill the dolphins. One of the authors is Diana Reiss, a marine mammal scientist and professor at Hunter College in New York.

DIANA REISS: They repeatedly drive this knife-like object into the heads of the dolphins, causing great pain to the animals.

SHOGREN: Reiss studies the way dolphins think and communicate with each other.

REISS: This goes beyond belief and the fact that any modern country, like Japan, that really appreciates nature can continue to do this is unbelievable and unjustifiable.

SHOGREN: Reiss and other opponents of the dolphin hunts were thrilled to see Ambassador Kennedy weighing in on the issue. Jon Davidann is a professor of history at Hawaii Pacific University who focuses on U.S./Japanese relations. He says it's not unusual for a U.S. ambassador to criticize Japanese policy.

JON DAVIDANN: But it is unusual to find the American ambassador voicing disapproval of what could be characterized as Japanese cultural practices.

SHOGREN: Davidann says in the two months Kennedy has been in her post, she's distinguished herself from her predecessors.

DAVIDANN: The new ambassador, Ambassador Kennedy, has taken a little bit more aggressive approach with the Japanese, a little bit more critical approach with the Japanese.

SHOGREN: Opponents of dolphin hunting hope she will keep up the pressure on Japanese officials to end the practice. Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.

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