Ethnocentrism in The Cove

          The critically acclaimed film, The Cove, follows Ric O’Barry, the trainer and star of the television show, Flipper, who has since dedicated his life for the justice of dolphins around the world. The documentary’s premise is to expose the tragic dolphin hunt that happens annually in Taiji, Japan to bring the attention to this inhumane practice and act as a call to action to stop the slaughter. In this sense, the film has succeeded as the shock value of the film has resonated with the American public, and is portrayed as being brought the surface by the courageous efforts of the American film crew. Yet, the aim of the movie is to seemingly change a Japanese practice so it fails to stimulate change within the culture as the movie is targeted so far from a Japanese audience. The film, instead, takes a moralistic stance that tugs on the heartstrings of the American public to bring awareness towards this act. Though the film’s initial objective may have been to expose a small group of people on the shores of Wakayama, it clearly imposes Western standards on Japan’s policies, customs, and values, which is particularly evident in the coverage of Japan’s whaling policies. The film was successful in shedding light on the cruelty of Taiji’s dolphin slaughter and certainly is effective in capturing the tension and playing up the danger, but it has done so at the cost of the misunderstanding of the Japanese people’s food culture. By imposing the Western standards and values on Japanese culture, the film adopts an ethnocentric psyche that discredits the issue at hand.

          The problem with The Cove is that the issue is deeper than “greedy” Japanese fisherman killing dolphins and is instead an intrinsic culturally related problem. It is not stated that whaling and the consumption of dolphins has been a tradition that can be followed back to the Edo period of Japan in the film nor do the filmmakers demonstrate any understanding of the Japanese culture. That is not to say that this is a nation wide tradition, as is evident by the portrayal of the Tokyo citizens in the film, but a tradition that deserves a certain degree of respect nonetheless. Additionally, it is important to note that the idea of tradition not be used as an excuse to conduct inhumane practices but instead it demonstrates that had the cultural aspect of consuming dolphins as a form of food been addressed, the film could actually be effective in achieving their goal. By dismissing dolphin meat as food at all, Psihoyos dismisses the people of Taiji’s food culture altogether as an inhumane practice, and dehumanizes the people themselves by degrading their culture as being less civilized than that of the West. Furthermore, it was not too long ago that meat in Japan was addressed in the same manner as exemplified in Fuzukawa Yukichi’s, “On Meat Eating”, where he states, “There remain many people who blindly dislike [using meat], saying that meat eating is filthy, in accordance with the customs our nation has followed for many long centuries.” He goes on further saying, “This is a specious argument born out of ignorant blindness that demonstrates a lack of knowledge.” Ironically, Fukuzawa strengthens his argument for meat eating by expressing that cow meat is much easier to process than whale meat, as if the consumption of whale meat was an integral food group as cows are to the West, “People never express such misgivings when we catch whales and eat their meat.” This further illustrates the polarized cultural rift between the East and the West that demonstrates how easy it is to perpetuate this misunderstanding and dismissal of cultural practices.

One of the most prominent arguments that Psihoyo makes in his argument against the Japanese consumption of dolphins is the fact that they are high in the food chain, thus mercury levels are biomagnified to a toxic level in their meat. It is evident that by utilizing this platform, O’Barry’s is able to orient their animal rights agenda with a human rights violation that defends his stance against dolphin as a commodity. Regardless of whether O’Barry’s concern over mercury poisoning as a result of dolphin consumption is a byproduct of his initial aim, the fact that there is a prospect that the Japanese market contains possibilities of mercury food poising is still prominent. Clearly, this is the film’s strongest argument against the slaughter of dolphins and yet it seems to be contrived and dismissed instead of grasping the opportunity to be a real informational source for the citizens of Taiji. Although there is an older generation of Taiji who feel as though whaling and consuming dolphin meat is an intrinsic part of their culture, the only realistic approach to ending this dolphin hunt is to cut off the demand by informing and educating the younger generation about the real risks of consuming this meat. It is this generational difference that may be the only feasible act that may stop this dolphin hunt and the fact that the documentary did little to address the Japanese audience as a call to action is counterproductive in its cause.

The differences in food culture and its correlation with one’s values are evident in The Cove but it does little to make an ecological conservation argument. Instead, it underscores how dolphins have human-like qualities that should resonate with people emotionally. By humanizing dolphins and in turn dehumanizing the Japanese fisherman, turns an objective look at a cultural problem into an American versus Japanese story about how these cruel fishermen hunt innocent animals. This sets up a hegemonic role that is able to twist the message of the film into something manipulative that is more interested in enlisting foreign support than informing the perpetrators at hand and victims at risk. If the filmmakers could exhibit the sensibility and sensitivity to the culture they were scrutinizing, it could have had the potential to make a real impact on the cause.

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