Shrugging off global revulsion, and protests by celebrities as well as the US Ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy, Japanese fishermen began to slaughter up to 200 dolphins trapped in a cove made infamous by an Oscar-winning documentary.
The picturesque bay at Taiji, 420km south of Tokyo, is the site of the world's largest annual dolphin slaughter. In recent years it has become the focus of outrage about a practice defended by Japan as part of its hunting tradition.
During the six-month season, fishermen corral scores of dolphins and herd them into the secluded cove. They select a number to sell to marine parks and aquariums, separating them from their pods, and butcher most of the rest for meat, stabbing them with knives and harpoons and turning the seawater crimson.
Since last weekend, according to the Sea Shepherd conservation group, which has been streaming live footage on its website, more than 250 bottlenose dolphins have been rounded up. As of yesterday, 51 - including a rare albino calf - had been captured for possible sale, while many of the remainder faced a gruesome death after four nights without food.
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In an unusual intervention by a diplomat, Kennedy tweeted that she was "deeply concerned by inhumaneness of drive hunt dolphin killing". She added that the US Government opposed the practice of driving the creatures into a cove, also carried out in other Japanese coastal towns. Yoko Ono, the Japanese-born widow of John Lennon, also weighed in, warning Taiji fishermen that the slaughter would "make the children of the world hate the Japanese".
While the 2009 documentary The Cove, directed by Louie Psihoyos, focused world attention on the annual bloodbath, the town's fishermen have remained defiant. They try to prevent activists from watching the hunt, spreading tarpaulins over the killing zone, while police set up barricades.
One fishing industry official told AFP: "We've got our lives. We can't simply nod [to protests] and end centuries of our tradition ... If you want to talk about cruelty, you couldn't eat cows, pigs or any other living creatures".
Sea Shepherd's footage has shown the cornered dolphins thrashing around and getting tangled in nets. A Japanese Government spokesman defended the hunt as "a form of traditional fishing". Asked about Kennedy's comments, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference: "We will explain our stance to the American side."
The Wakayama Prefectural Government, which covers Taiji, has set a catch quota this year of 2026 porpoises and dolphins.