A man from Taiji, the Japanese fishing town whose annual slaughter of dolphins has drawn widespread condemnation, will appear in court on Friday in an unprecedented legal challenge to the hunts.
In an exclusive interview with the Guardian, the plaintiff, who has asked not to be named until the hearing has concluded, said he had been been ostracised in Taiji, where he was born and raised but decided to speak out against the hunts.
The 53-year-old, who has lived near Tokyo since the end of last year, will testify at Wakayama district court as part of a legal case brought by the London-based animal welfare charity Action for Dolphins and Life Investigation Agency, a Japanese NGO.
The companies said fishermen in the Pacific coast town routinely violate animal welfare laws and exceed government-set catch quotas. Action for Dolphins has described drive hunts, in which pods are herded from the open sea into a narrow cove, as “exceptionally cruel”. It said the animals die a slow, painful death.
Local fishermen denied they exceeded quotas or killed dolphins inhumanely, and have vowed to continue the hunts.
The plaintiff, whose father worked on local whaling vessels for four decades, will argue the dolphin drive hunts have damaged the global reputation of Taiji – a town of 3,300 – and that by speaking out he has been “deprived of my right to live normally”.
He said fishermen had wrongly accused him of cutting nets used to confine captured dolphins, and his young sister has been verbally confronted by residents. “The owner of a Japanese restaurant confronted me about my opposition to whaling and suggested that I was no longer welcome there.”
The lawsuit comes as Japan prepares to start commercial whaling in coastal waters for the first time in more than 30 years. The first expedition, due to begin in July, will reportedly include fishermen from Taiji, where the earliest recorded coastal whale hunts can be traced back to the early 1600s.
If the legal challenge against dolphin hunting succeeds, catch permits issued by the local government will be declared invalid and hunts will not be allowed to continue, Action for Dolphins said.
Angie Plummer, a spokeswoman for the group, said: “We have high hopes for the legal action, and given the compelling evidence, we think it has every chance of success.
“Japanese people are front and centre of the lawsuit, proving there is a strong movement to end dolphin hunting in this country. The hunts are becoming increasingly unpopular in Japan, and at the same time consumption of dolphin meat is steadily decreasing.”
The Taiji hunts gained notoriety after the release of the 2009 Oscar-winning documentary The Cove, whose graphic footage shocked audiences.
Some of the dolphins captured at Taiji are killed and their meat sold in supermarkets and restaurants but the most attractive specimens are sold to aquariums for up to tens of thousands of pounds each, according to activists.
In 2015, Action for Dolphins took legal action against the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which resulted in 62 Japanese aquariums facing expulsion from the body unless they agreed to stop buying dolphins captured in Taiji.
The town’s whale museum, however, quit the Japanese branch of the World Association in protest and continues to display and sell locally caught cetaceans overseas.