UNDERCOVER IN SHIMONOSEKI, JAPAN
by Mark Lee
The reason for me to write this blog is to challenge and motivate new activists to outdo me, which should not be all that difficult once they set their minds to it. Also, it is to detail an operation, to whatever extent it can be told in the context of its being undercover, as an example of how to deal with tough situations. Finally, Shimonoseki is a key city and port in Japanese whaling, and this piece should give a backgrounder to anyone interested in going there for any reason.
In 2004, I devised a method of communication with dolphins by which they could be alerted to danger, thereby avoiding it. To test it, I went to Taiji, Japan, solo but supported by a major animal protection group, to perform a series of nocturnal experiments which required me to bodily enter the cold waters of “The Cove” where dolphins were seasonally captured and slaughtered by the thousands every year. The experiment was successful. In the 2-week period in November during which the experiment was conducted, no dolphins were captured or killed. Taiji's own records should support this.
In 2005, I returned to Taiji with two activists to seek a more automated and permanent solution than the labor-intensive and dangerous one requiring an on site operator. That one was an adventure of another kind, and another story. The story here is my week-long stint in another Japanese city, with another activist.
The name of this activist is Bruce Forester, who also funded this mission. He is also a good friend of mine, who later rescued me from a very tight spot when I was stranded in Osaka, and that is yet another story.
The objective of this operation was to board the mother ship of the Japanese Antarctic whaling fleet for a certain purpose which I am not at liberty to reveal.
We landed in the Narita international airport in Tokyo on November 1. The first thing to do was to locate the fleet. Even before we got the rental car, we had been stumped as to which city to go to. Now with the steering wheel of the rental car in my grasp, I needed to know which way to turn it. The fleet could assemble at any major seaport, or even a minor one - Yokohama, Shizuoka, Osaka, Kobe, Hiroshima, Shimonoseki, Nagasaki, in increasing distance from Tokyo, and of course Tokyo itself. The whaling fleet usually left Japan in early November, so we didn't exactly have all the time in the world to find it.
Almost on a hunch, with little intel support, I steered a direct course for the second farthest one from Tokyo short of Nagasaki - Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture - flying distance to/from Tokyo 510 miles (820 km), driving distance about 600 miles (~1000km).
Throughout the long drive, I could not shake the doubt that my hunch could be wrong. What then? Shimonoseki was at the tail end of Japan, even Taiji was closer to Tokyo. What was Plan B? Nagasaki would be my guess. Why? It is the southwestern-most port of Japan, and the fleet would be heading south. But Shimonoseki did have a history of being a whaling port.
Japanese highways, and even the international airport which see much tourist traffic, are not exactly foreigner-friendly. The signage is all in Japanese. Even the in-dash GPS of the rental car was in Japanese only, with no language option. Good thing that way-back-when in history, Japan did not have a written language of its own, and borrowed heavily from the Chinese. So being of Chinese extraction and upbringing, I could read some of the Japanese characters, just enough to get by. Were Bruce on his own, he could not have gone far before getting utterly lost.
Anyway, we made it to Shimonoseki in good time, and arrived in the late evening. We picked a hotel in downtown near the waterfront and bedded down for the night. The next morning, I looked out the window, and for a moment almost thought that I was back in Vancouver, what with an ocean inlet in front, and mountains on the opposite shore.
Bruce and I went for a walk on the water front and, except for the inner tension, it was like a walk in the park. But we noticed that Shimonoseki, even more so than Tokyo, was all Japanese. There was not another Caucasian person in sight the whole day we walked around. Bruce of course stuck out like a sore thumb, and received much unwanted attention, though the Japanese people were more discrete than some others I've seen. Being Oriental I could dissolve into a crowd, as long as I bore in mind the advice I've received to not advertize my birth origin, at pain of some kind of discrimination or even abuse.
There was a small dock protruding into the water and we walked out to its tip to photograph the surroundings. When we were going back to our rental car, there was a uniformed officer standing there waiting for us. There was no preamble. Bruce and I were questioned about why we were taking pictures. I said I was a tourist, smiling inwardly that taking pictures was what Japanese tourists were notorious for. He did not seem convinced, and asked what we felt about whaling. We just looked at each other innocently and shrugged. He seemed more interested in Bruce, who stayed vague and evasive. After a bit, unable to pin us down on anything, he let us go.
On our initial exploration, we just randomly cruised the waterfront by car, looking for whaling vessels. Before long, voila, we sighted a harpoon boat inside a tightly packed moorage. But I did not shout "Eureka!", since it did not look like one of the vessels of the Antarctic fleet. Walking around town, we found whale meat for sale in department stores, and whale dishes on restaurant menus.
At some point we encountered a skyscraper which was in fact an observation platform supported by a tall metal endo-skeleton and cloaked in glass. I suggested that we go up and see if we could spot the whaling fleet from a height. It cost a pretty yen, but up we went. Within seconds of my initial scan, I had the reason to drop some more yens into a telescope. What I saw through it made me exclaim, “Hey, Bro! Guess what!"
"Take a look for yourself," I said, yielding the telescope to him.
"OMG! It's the Nisshin Maru!!!"
The Nisshin Maru is, in my opinion, the most evil ship in the world bar none. It is the factory mother-ship of the Japanese Antarctic whaling fleet, and the target of our operation. It was tied up at the farthest birth of what looked like a large high-security dock within a mile from the tower.
“Little did the creators of this observation tower know that it would one day serve the anti-whaling cause,” I quipped.
From the tower, we also saw the hotel, and the shopping center one block from the hotel where the rental car was parked.
After a bit, Bruce said, "See that white building on the waterfront? It must be the aquarium. I hear that there are some Taiji-caught dolphins in there."
"Well, well, well," I murmured, while scrutinizing it through the telescope.
"Check this out. An Antarctic fleet catch boat. I bet the rest of the fleet is there," I said while yielding the telescope to Bruce again.
After exiting the tower, since the Nisshin Maru seemed heavily guarded, we went towards the aquarium to check out the harpoon ship. It was the Yushin Maru, of the Antarctic fleet for sure, but she was there all by herself.
The next day, still wanting for a solution to access the Nisshin Maru, we decided to check out the dolphins in the aquarium, and, to our amazement, the two other harpoon ships were there, all three in naval grey, plus a white fleet tender. All were festooned with colorful manners, giving their ensemble a festive air.
We wanted to go into the aquarium to visit its Taiji-caught dolphins, and to check out its whaling connection, if any. But the entrance fee was exorbitant, so Bruce decided to stay out, saying that it would be less conspicuous if I went in on my own.
After visiting the captive dolphins, all Bottlenose of course, I became heart-sick, and emerged through the aquarium's rear door on to a wide waterfront walk. Right outside of the door was a monument featuring a steel sculpture of a Blue whale, with a plaque bearing an engraving in Japanese and, wonder of wonders, English, which said: "Our gratitude to whales." I should look up a Japanese dictionary for the word "gratitude".
Looking past the monument, I saw the four ships moored right there, two abreast, with the two pairs in tandem. There were unguarded gangplanks leading to the two adjacent to land. I could have walked right aboard either one had I wanted to, but my quarry was the Nisshin Maru.
On the third day, we decided to brave the security dock to recon the Nisshin Maru for the best way to get on board. Because Bruce was too conspicuous, I decided to do it on my own. When I got there, on foot, I saw that the gate was open, with people and vehicles going in and out of it, unchecked. Biting the bullet, I walked right in, as if I owned it.
The dock, was long enough for three ships. There was a Korean ship and a Chinese ship tied in behind the Nisshin Maru, which was the farthest out. I put on a show of taking pictures of the Chinese freighter, which was the one directly behind the Nisshin Maru, in case I was questioned. Of course, when I was standing near the bow of the Chinese ship, I was at the stern of the factory ship, which had painted on its black side amidships, in huge white block letters, the word "RESEARCH". I made a mental note to myself to look up “research” in the Japanese dictionary as well.
Of course, the distinguishing feature of a whaling factory ship is its slipway extending from water level at the large stern opening forward and upward. The slipway is a ramp by which whale carcasses are dragged from the sea on to the main deck to be butchered. I metaphorically slapped myself on my forehead. How better to enter the ship than through the slipway? The only question was whether we should access it by raft or by wet suit. One way or the other, it would be done at night, though the ship would still be lit up like a Christmas tree.
After my Chinese ship subterfuge, I turned my camera at the whaling ship. The dock was crawling with workers in the process of loading the ship. Unfortunately, at that point, I caught the attention of a uniformed guard. He walked straight up to me and asked me what I was doing on the dock. I said that I had a cousin working on the Chinese vessel, and that I was there to take pictures of his ship. I knew the story was full of holes. His next question would probably have been for my "cousin"'s name, and I would have to tell a lie to cover-up a lie. But fate intervened. His cell phone rang and he moved off to one side to answer it. I took the opportunity to calmly walk away.
I walked as fast as possible without running, and got back on to the street unintercepted. The hotel was in the direction of the aquarium, so I proceeded in that direction. At one point, about halfway to the aquarium, I came across a stretch of waterfront where a dozen or so small freighters were tied. I took some random pictures of these ship to show that I was just a “ship-junkie” in case I was question. Sure enough, lo and behold, my progress was blocked by a white van which had passed me from behind. Two plain clothes men came out and ordered me to stop.
One of them, who spoke passable English, asked me straight out why I was taking photos of the Nisshin Maru. So, they did tail me from the dock. I said I was more interested in the Chinese freighter, and freighters in general. He ordered me to hand over my camera, which I did. Good thing that I had already downloaded the photos I had taken the previous days into my computer and had deleted them from the camera. He and his colleague looked through all the pictures I had taken on that day, and indeed there were more freighter pics than the ones of the Nisshin Maru. He asked me why I was interested in freighters. I said that I was considering sailing in one.
"Are you associated with Sea Shepherd?"
"Sea Shepherd, the group that harasses our whaling fleet."
“Oh, that group. I've seen them on TV. But that's about it.”
"What about Greenpeace?"
“Greenpeace? It started in my country, but that's about all I know. I'm not a member of it.”
“Why are you in Shimonoseki?”
“I'm a tourist.”
"But why Shimonoseki?"
“Oh, I'm just passing through, from Hiroshima to Nagasaki.”
"What is in Hiroshima and Nagasaki for you?"
“To pay my respects to the war dead.”
“Please show me your passport.”
“I left it in my rental car,” which in fact it wasn't; it was in the hotel, but Bruce was there and my story of us visiting Hiroshima and Nagasaki was just conjured on the spot.
"Where is the car?"
“In the parking garage of a shopping center.”
“Okay, let's go."
He asked his companion to follow us slowly in the white van, and we went off on foot towards the department store maybe 2 kilometers away and one block from the hotel which did not have its own parking facility. While we walked, with the van tailing us, he kept on peppering me with questions. I stayed as close to the truth as possible, including where I was born and where I lived. Many of the questions were repeats, and many were trick questions. I've been called "calm and cool", "unflappable", "stoic", etc., under diverse stressful situations, and all these came into play to keep me afloat. But that was the longest 2 km I had ever walked.
All the while I was saying to myself, "Uh oh, what am I gonna do when we get to the car?"
When we got to the car, I put on a big pretense of looking for my passport, ending with, “I'm very sorry, but now I remember. It is in the hotel.”
I was banking on that he would not call my bluff, but he did. Meanwhile, he used his cell phone to photograph the license plate of my rental car.
"Which hotel?" he said.
“That one,” I said, pointing at it.
So off we walked towards the hotel, with the white van again in tow.
To be honest, I was at a loss for a solution and pretty much cast my fate to the wind. My best case scenario was that Bruce had gone out.
When we arrived at the hotel room, and I entered with my key, Bruce was there. The interrogator followed me right in, and I thought that that was it. But then again, fate intervened, for the second time, in the same way. The guy's cell phone rang. He went out to the hall way to answer it. His partner was just coming out from the elevator. Quickly, I whispered to Bruce, "We are tourists going from Hiroshima to Nagasaki to pay respect to the war dead, and intend to stay at Shimonoseki for only a few days." No sooner had Bruce heard it than the guy came back it. He asked Bruce exactly that question, and Bruce answered it correctly with no sign of stress.
Strangely, they seemed more interested in me than in Bruce, and escorted me down to the coffee shop in the lobby to interrogate me for another half an hour, leaving Bruce in the room unmolested. At the end, they could not pin me down and called it quits. Very strangely, my interrogator made me a farewell gift of a pack of Japanese kleenex.
All told, from beginning to end, the whole ordeal lasted upwards of two hours.
As I mentioned in the beginning, I cannot divulge the nature of the undercover operation, nor its outcome. Suffice to say that the whaling fleet departed from Shimonoseki on November 8, and we drove back to the Narita airport for Bruce to take his flight back to Canada.
There is a final bout of stress in this story. The GPS took us through a very convoluted and congested route to the wrong airport - Haneda instead of Narita. We reset the GPS and floored it, while sweating and cursing the whole way. When we finally arrived, Bruce was within 5 minutes of the plane's scheduled departure. The ticket agent had to call the plane for it to wait, and Bruce had to run nearly a mile with his carry on luggage to make it, but he did.
Meanwhile, I turned the car around towards Taiji, but, as I've said before, that was another story.