Sendai, SXSW, and “The Cove”: Individuality in the face of crisis

The past couple of weeks have been… an exercise in contrasts. I’m sure you’re well aware of the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear triple combo hit Japan was recently dealt. It was around the same time that SXSW went into full swing in Texas. Many people in my local web development community attended, and many more who I follow online were present as well. The disturbing part was that while NPR was reporting steadily on what was going from bad to worse in Japan, my Twitter stream and RSS feed reader were overflowing with “OMG SXSW!”

I found it deeply unsettling. After awhile I had to disengage my inputs. Who was drinking beers with who after watching a show at SXSW was on the bottom of my scale of important things I should be paying attention to. Now I’m sure after 9-11 not every country in the world observed a week of silence and mournful blogging on America’s behalf, nor would I have expected or wanted them to. But these two events taking place simultaneously online created a cacophony of information overload that gave me what I can only describe as “information sickness.” It’s like sea sickness, when what you see and what you feel don’t match up so your brain makes you feel funny. When two streams information report vastly different world perspectives, you have to turn away or feel disgusted on some level.

I’ve heard some people say that, “Japan’s a first world nation–she can take care of herself.” But even first world nations require help when their land has been blighted. Remember when Japan helped us during Hurricane Katrina? Seems we are still having trouble “taking care of ourself.”

At the same time, I bristle a bit when I hear people who a few months ago had trouble distinguishing between China and Japan refer to the Japanese as “such a noble people.” (On a side note, I don’t recall anyone saying that about the Haitians last year when their streets were literally running with blood. Perhaps only certain kinds of people can be “noble.”) I even heard a person on the television say that there is no word for “looter” in Japanese. This is not true; there totally is. It’s only one step above “pedophile,” though. I can’t help but feel such statements rob the Japanese of their individual dignity by consigning them as a whole to a Western stereotype, even if it is a pleasant stereotype.

Nobility and Taiji’s dolphin “harvest”

Just last year The Cove won an Academy Award for best documentary. It’s an Ocean’s 11-esque film about Japan’s annual government-condoned slaughter of tens of thousands of dolphins. Basically, local goons round up dolphins to sell to aquariums all over the world and slaughter whatever doesn’t sell. After watching this, I feel it is not right to keep cetaceans, whales and dolphins, in captivity. There are reasons why zoos aren’t allowed to capture even common red tailed hawks to put on display. Ever notice that all the birds of prey you see in zoos are rescues who couldn’t survive in the wild due to disability? It’s not because they’re endangered. It’s because all native birds, migratory or not, are protected from captivity in this country. Cetaceans should be protected from such captivity programs as well. They truly were not meant to live in tanks anymore than albatrosses are meant for cages.

A live dolphin is worth about $150,000, a dead one only $600. Whatever doesn’t sell, the fishermen slaughter and repackage as “whale meat” for sale in grocery stores throughout Japan. So sea park money is the motivator behind this round up, with each dolphin you see at such parks being one of hundreds that died in a session. If you aren’t disturbed by the baby dolphins waiting in pens while watching their families and parents being stabbed repeatedly in the water next to them, you will be disturbed by how heavily tainted with mercury dolphin meat is, moreso than tuna, and that the unsuspecting public is feeding it to their children and mothers-to-be. Dolphin meat should be considered a toxic substance inedible to humans, and for the most part, Japanese people avoid it, preferring instead to eat the healthier meat of southern whales. But they are being duped into eating this brutal harvest by mislabeling. Mercury poisoning is no small matter, and Japan’s tangoed with it already.

Japan lobbies heavily to hunt whales freely again. (They don’t have to lobby to hunt dolphins, as there is no ban on smaller cetaceans.) I don’t think it’s fair that this country should have as much clout as it does when other peoples who can also claim a cultural right to hunt cetaceans have handed in their harpoons. These animals do not belong to any one country any more than the birds in the sky do.

The film was not as gory as I was expecting, and it had a definite action-flick feel as the film makers dodged the Japanese authorities in order to expose this “dirty secret” which even most Japanese citizens have no idea is going on. If you can stand to have your heart strings tugged and consider yourself a friend of the environment, Japan, or dolphins, you should check it out and form your own conclusion.

Peoples is peoples

So why did I mention dolphin slaughter in a post that’s supposed to be about the tsunami? Because even after watching this documentary, I don’t hate Japanese people, and I’m still donating to the Red Cross. On the other hand, just because a country is having a hard time doesn’t mean we should ignore its shortcomings.

I can no more call the Japanese “noble” for recovering after an earthquake than I can call them “evil” for mistreating POWs in WWII. In fact, I don’t like referring the people who live in Japan as merely “Japanese” because it makes them sound like one person, not individuals with their own sense of right and wrong, their own gifts and shortcomings, their own generational attitudes and opinions. I’m hearing a lot of inspiring stories about individuals coming out of Japan, people rescuing each other, laying down their lives to save one another. (And my goodness, I was actually proud of our military for helping out. I had a little “Go Team America!” moment.)

It is important to remember the individuals affected by these things, and to try to assist where you can, whether it’s helping get food to the hungry or protecting them from eating contaminants. We all have to do our part, not as a nameless herd of complacents, but as an active team of human individuals, sharing this tight planet, and lifting each other up where possible.

Want to do something? You can donate to the Red Cross and you can help raise awareness about the dolphins and sign this petition to not attend a dolphin show.

I have probably immensely pissed someone off with my ramblings, and I apologize if I have. I’ll go be quiet in a corner  now.