SYDNEY - Divers from Taiji helped to establish the Australian coastal town of Broome as the hub of the international pearling trade in the late 19th century.
But now the Japanese whaling port is famous for different reasons - its annual slaughter of thousands of dolphins - and Broome has been forced to cut historic ties with its sister city.
A new documentary, The Cove, which opens in New Zealand this week, has highlighted the gruesome practice of Taiji fishermen, who herd the dolphins into a narrow cove and then hack them to death with knives and harpoons.
It features graphic footage shot by a team including Richard O'Barry, who trained dolphins for the 1960s television series Flipper but has since become an animal rights campaigner.
In Broome, a popular tourist spot on Australia's northwest coast, pressure has been mounting on authorities over the town's links with Taiji. After O'Barry presented a special screening of The Cove at the local cinema, Broome Shire Council announced this week that it had "reluctantly" decided to suspend ties.
"It's a very sad day for Broome, given the historical and cultural contribution made by many people from Japan to the town, and the number of people living here who still have relatives in Taiji," said the Mayor, Graeme Campbell.
Campbell said the decision was "very disheartening and sad for those people", but "none of us can condone the slaughter".
The council, which had been bombarded with letters and emails, feared Broome's association with Taiji might deter tourists from visiting. Campbell said: "We've had a tsunami of electronic and written protest to us, both nationally and internationally. We had 5000 emails in one day."
O'Barry and other activists secretly filmed the mass killings after managing to gain access to the cove, which is sealed off by barbed wire. O'Barry says that as many as 23,000 dolphins a year are butchered for food or captured for sale to marine amusement parks. Japan claims the true figure is closer to 3000, and says people in the Taiji area have a long tradition of eating dolphin meat.
Japanese divers and pearl masters played a key role in Broome's pearling industry, and their descendants live on in the town, which still produces the world's most highly prized pearls. Thanks to its history, Broome, which also brought in workers from China, the Malay peninsular and the Dutch East Indies, is one of Australia's most multi-racial towns.
Outrage sparked by The Cove has had the unpleasant side-effect of whipping up anti-Japanese sentiment in Broome. Campbell said several people, including a councillor with Japanese heritage, had suffered racial harassment.
The council says the sister-city relationship will be reinstated if Taiji stops the dolphin slaughter.By Kathy Marks