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Dolphin hunting begins Sept. 1 in Taiji amid tension between activists, residents

In this file photo, Hatakejiri Bay, where a temporary police box was set up, is seen in Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture, on Nov. 2, 2015. (Mainichi)

TAIJI, Wakayama -- As the start of the annual dolphin hunting season on Sept. 1 draws near in this western Japan town known as the birthplace of traditional whaling, the police and local officials are stepping up vigilance against activists from anti-whaling groups who have tried to intervene in the traditional fishing method.

The number of such activists visiting Taiji peaked at 200 in fiscal 2013 after the 2010 film "The Cove" triggered controversy by presenting a critical view of the dolphin hunting in which the animals are driven into a cove and caught. But their number dropped to 50 in fiscal 2017 and normalcy seems to be returning to the town, but concerns about trouble still remain.

According to the prefectural police, the number of confirmed activists visiting Taiji was around less than 100 until fiscal 2010 when the figure shot up to 150. The increase continued for the next three years, and trouble over filming regularly occurred. In 2012, a German activist who is linked to the anti-whale group Sea Shepherd was arrested on suspicion of damaging a bronze statue depicting a whaling scene.

The number of activists coming to Taiji started to decline in fiscal 2013 as the Ministry of Justice banned the entry into Japan of a senior Sea Shepherd member and the group stopped dispatching its members into the town. A prefectural police official explained that Sea Shepherd members used to comprise a large portion of visiting activists and their absence played a major role in the decline of the activist population here.

But local fisheries cooperative officials say that although the number of illegal filming inside restricted properties is decreasing, activists continue to take images of the port from public roads. A cooperative member said, "We want the filming to stop, but they reply they're shooting the scenery and we cannot complain anymore." Troubling fax messages are still sent to places linked with the cooperative, although their number is smaller than before. The messages include a call to stop dolphin hunting or a Buddhist phrase apparently meant to harass the recipient.

A town official said he is concerned about the situation, but said, "We want to protect the rights of people who make their living from legal fishing. But we cannot do anything against legal protests either."

The Wakayama Prefectural Police has set up a temporary police box in front of Hatakejiri Bay where the dolphin hunting will be carried out. Police officers are patrolling the town to see if activists are committing illegal acts, while plainclothes police officers are collecting information. Hiroki Ito, a counterterrorism official at the public safety department of the prefectural police, said the department will continue to place the temporary police box in the area in the future. "We will keep a close eye on anti-whaling groups and maintain security," he said.

(Japanese original by Shinji Kurokawa, Wakayama Bureau)

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