Taiji Grass Boat Ceremony

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By Leina Sato

All photos were taken as screen shots from the Project Anima video about Taiji.  Matt Vachon, the cinematographer, graciously grants permission for their use in this article.

Recorded by author

April 23, 2022

As I recall Taiji, what surges in my memory is the heady, overpowering fragrance of flowers and leaves filling our hotel room as we unpacked the parcels one after the other. 

They had arrived from different regions of Japan, some as far as the tropical islands of Amami, Okinawa and Ogasawara. The hotel clerk threw inquisitive looks at the teetering tower of cardboard boxes in the lobby. The description of goods on the shipping labels simply stated: “Grass boats”.

And so they were, hundreds of them, so much more than we’d anticipated. I had worried that we might not be able to reach the necessary count, 563, the official number released by the Dolphin Project and other environmental protection organizations at the close of the 2021/2022 Taiji Dolphin drive hunt season. Four hundred ninety eight dolphins killed, 65 harvested for a life in captivity. 

A few months earlier, as the hunting season was in full swing and I realized that so many of my friends and people in my community here in Japan were still unaware of this practice, I wondered how to communicate this information in ways that would allow for the emergence of a safe space for open, honest, and vulnerable dialogue. In the past, when sharing in Japan the reality of the drive hunts and how it was fueled by the captivity trade, I was often met with an embarrassed silence. It was as if there was too much to feel–powerlessness, discomfort, sadness, disbelief, guilt, a wave of confused feelings that would freeze them into apathy. 

How could I invite people to grieve 563 lives in a process of healing?

Rather than feeling incapacitated by them, how could we take those feelings and turn them into compost for new seeds to grow? How could I invite people to grieve 563 lives in a process of healing? Could beauty assist us in embracing grief as a path towards transformation and active hope? I was reminded of the work of activist and surfer Peggy Oki and her curtain of 38,000 Origami Whales to “serve as a visual statement and memorial for the thousands of individual whales killed since the 1986 ban on commercial whaling.”

Grass Boat Laden with Flowers

As in the Origami Whale Project, I felt it essential to render an abstract figure–563 lives– tangible so people may develop an emotional connection to that loss. Then there came the embryo of a crazy idea, the vision of a ceremony in Taiji where the cetaceans had met their deaths. But instead of origami, floating small woven grass boats on the waters of Hatakejiri Bay.

And so they were, 563 of them and counting, a testament of the prayers of people throughout Japan, overflowing into our hotel room in Taiji. They were everywhere, covering nearly every surface, each one a vista into the diverse flora of Japan, transforming the room into a floral verdant treasure trove. It was a delight to the senses to witness the colors, the creativity and care with which the boats had been crafted. We were overwhelmed by the sheer quantity, suddenly feeling the rush of responsibility as we wondered whether we’d manage to deliver them all safely to the ocean. I fell asleep that night drunk on the sweetness of the air, alive with the prayers of the grass boat weavers. 

Artisanal Bamboo Boat Carrying Vegetal Prayers

The next morning, we left the hotel at 5 am like fugitives. There were five of us walking into the blue light of dawn; the singer Ema, my friend Sae, Matt and Ricky, our two cameramen and myself. A central figure was a large bamboo boat built for the ceremony by an artisan friend. It was big enough for two small children and reminded me of a cradle as it held its delicate cargo of vegetal prayers. It was intended to help me transport the tiny grass boats out of the Hatakejiri Bay, a symbolic act, bringing them as close as possible to the freedom of the open sea. It seemed almost animate, perhaps imbued with the spirit of all who’d breathed life into this ceremony. 

The sky was streaked with pink and gold as we arrived at the cove. A feeling of deep peace permeated the bay, the air still humming with the songs of the receding night as insects softly called out to one another, a lone bird crossed the sky, and the water lapped against the gray pebbles on shore. Soon after, the sun rose from the sea, setting the horizon ablaze. 

We began our preparations in silence. The bamboo boat was filled to the rim and there were still over a hundred grass boats left. Lined next to one another on the beach, they awaited their return to the sea. We would have to release them from the shore. I suspected they’d eventually wash back up onto the pebbles but it would be better than nothing. I picked up the first boat as carefully as I would a small animal. I waded into the water, holding it in my cupped hands. 

Water holds memory, it is a bearer of stories.

I had anticipated this meeting for weeks now, this contact with the water of the cove. Water holds memory, it is a bearer of stories. What would she have to tell me, she who had witnessed decades of silent ecocide, shivering with the laments of thousands of agonizing bodies? But what permeated my skin then was neither terror nor judgement. Rather, it was a softness beyond imagination, an embrace of reassurance, a whisper: “Everything will be alright.” 

A part of me crumbled as I gave in to that touch. I surrendered to a space of unknowing, which was also a place of trust–letting go of the need to fight, to make sense and to figure out how. How to end the slaughter, how to raise more awareness, how to demand justice, how to pull through to the other end. 

How could this water who’d held so much death and anguish fill me with such peace?

In resting with the unknown, the unwritten future, as well as with the grief and the hope, I heard the water and the bay speaking to me in a voice which  the activist in me found so hard to trust: “It will be alright.” How could this water who’d held so much death and anguish fill me with such peace? 

Then my attention shifted to the grass boats, to their testimony of beauty and the desire to take action, no matter how small it may seem. In them I saw the gift of the plants chosen and picked by the multitude of hands, who in turn wove them in memory of the broken lineages of dolphins and whales. And I thought, just perhaps, it could be that the conjugation of everyone’s thoughts had begun invoking a new story for this bay, as reflected in the animate and healing lens of the water. 

Bringing Grass Boats to Open Ocean

I offered the first boat to the tranquil surface. It shivered, stagnating in hesitation and then something wondrous unfolded. The frail embarcation set tentatively forward, floating ever so slightly towards the mouth of the bay. It was guided by an invisible current, indiscernible to my senses, or by the pull of an irresistible attraction to the spaces it knew as home, guided by the way of the lost cetaceans. 

Whether it was the workings of a physical or a mystical force, it was an amazing sight, the homecoming of all these grass boats departing the shore in the direction of the sea beyond. 

I followed suit, motioned forth by Ema’s ‘oli,’ her chant rising in the stillness of the morning light. 

Ema Reflecting on Ceremony

Ema too had woven a boat with leaves and strands of hay, large enough to hold an infant. A small pouch lay in it, containing a handful of seeds. “The promise of new life and new departures,” she had said. “This boat honors the memory of the ancient Ocean Tribes of Japan, the hunter-gatherers who ventured into the wilds of the sea and the land. We honor and grieve their lost ways and wisdom.”

I immersed myself into the water with the memory of those lineages, human and more than human, hanging over me. I thought of their intertwined stories, the generations of sacrificed cetaceans and the long-gone ocean hunters, mourning the forgotten ways of reciprocity and their belonging to the animate sea. 

There were no two sides pitted against each other but rather a circle that had been broken.

I started swimming, holding a boat in each hand, the bamboo boat laden with the prayers for the lost dolphins and whales and Ema’s boat honoring the ancient tradition of Ocean people. And for a brief instant, as the veil of judgment lifted as did my aching for justice, I could see something other than the binary of victim and perpetrator. There were no two sides pitted against each other but rather a circle that had been broken. I sensed that the wound, the seeming divide between Human and Nature, ran deep, a few millennia old. 

As I swam, flanked by the two boats, towards the first line of buoys closing off the bay, the underwater landscape gliding beneath me was familiar. It was just as I’d seen it in The Cove, the smooth grey pebbles on the sea bed and the flowing algae like strands of hair, before it all disappeared, in the documentary film, in a cloud of crimson red. Of course, this morning, there was no blood, only the silky water flowing over me in a hushed whisper, a quiet exhortation. I had no difficulty sliding under the first array of stringed buoys with the two boats; but soon after, a net materialized in front of us, blocking our way out, a phantom image of what I had seen in the documentary. The curtain of death. 

The ocean knows no walls.

It was fleeting but for a moment I became Dolphin, panic-stricken and unable to find the resolve to leap over. Many people, including myself, often wonder why the dolphins do not just jump over–it seems common sense, given their capacities. The common assumption is that it simply does not occur to them that they could. They are wary of it, because it is foreign to them, having never encountered barriers in their environment. The ocean knows no walls. Hearing this explanation, a Japanese friend mused: Perhaps they are too worried about the others. Indeed, for beings so social and for whom the relationships upholding community are paramount, it might be just so. Perhaps the dolphins do not attempt to escape for fear of leaving anybody behind. 

So for a moment, I too wonder if I should turn around. But the water urges me to go on and so I do, sliding over the derisory frontier with the boats in tow. Releasing the boats, sending them off with a blessing, I am reminded of the ceremony we conduct in Hawai’i when a person has passed. As family and community paddle out to sea on canoes or surfboards, the ashes of the departed are scattered with leis and handfuls of flowers.  

Journey Back to the Sea

I could swear they were all here, the air humming with their presence, the spirits of the dolphins and whales who’d drawn their last breath in this bay. Swirling in the spaces above, I imagined them surfing the waves of the infinite and I could feel, somehow, the process of reparation at work, the wound slowly healing.

As I swam back, I saw that a few of the grass boats who’d journeyed from the shore had made it over the line of buoys. They were headed home. 

#####

 

In closing, I’d like to share words gleaned from a podcast conversation between protector of the wild Ayana Young  and writer and philosopher Bayo Akomolafe (1) as they reflected upon tending grief as ceremony and as an opportunity for transformation and rebirth. 

They called upon the wisdom of anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose and ecophilosopher Thom Van Dooren (2) in keeping faith in death and mourning in the times of anthropogenic extinction: “Mourning is a process of learning and transformation to accommodate a changed reality. Mourning is about dwelling with the loss and coming to appreciate what it means, how the world has changed and how we must ourselves change and renew our relationships.” 

After our ceremony at the bay, we proceeded to visit the many swim-with-dolphin facilities in the town of Taiji. My day ended at the Taiji Whale Museum, face to face with an orca fetus floating in formaldehyde. Words still fail as I try to describe the storm of emotions that besieged me. It was a macabre, heart-wrenching sight. 

Yet, past the initial shock, I could not help but be overcome by its beauty and perfection. It seemed asleep, dwelling in the world of dreams. And how innocent it was, how precious, a sculpture carved out of marble. It was unblemished, umbilical cord still attached, its penis in erection. A boy. 

is this what grieving for our more than human kin feels like? 


A surge of  overwhelming love and helplessness came over me, as I saw, superimposed, the image of my young son. The memories of his birth came flooding back, the tenderness, the sheer delight of holding his warm newborn body against mine. This orca child and my human son, they felt, somehow, one and the same. And I wondered: is this what grieving for our more than human kin feels like? 

Deborah Bird Rose, in her research on Australian Aboriginal Totemism, speaks of the experiences of “death and grief in a world of kin” for peoples who dwell “in larger than human communities”  (3). One of the questions she raises is the following: “How do people in a kin-based ecology understand and manage their participation in the deaths of animals?”

Seen through the lens of animism but also of maternal love, the unborn orca is kin to my son. 

Offering to the Ocean Tribes

As I travel back in time, I realize that animism is also present in the creation story of Japan. Animism as defined by Graham Harvey is the “understanding that the world is full of persons, only some of whom are human and that life is always lived in relationship to others”(4). This world view pervaded ancient communities throughout Japan, and guided the minds and hearts of people who lived in reciprocity with the natural world, from which they did not consider themselves separate. 

Surely, this memory, the remnants of belonging, must still exist in the far reaches of the collective consciousness of Japan. What dialogue could stir it back to life again, and render it as natural as the love of a mother for her child?


Notes and References:

Video in English:: https://vimeo.com/727057531
           In French: https://vimeo.com/721574057

All photos were taken as screen shots from the Project Anima video about Taiji.
Matt Vachon is the cinematographer, and graciously grants permission for their use in this article. mattvachon.com

(1) Young , A, (Host) Akomolafe, B (Interviewee). Slowing Down in Urgent Times  (285) (Encore) [Audio podcast episode] in For the Wild Podcast . URL: https://forthewild.world/listen/dr-bayo-akomolafe-on-slowing-down-in-urgent-times-encore-285

(2) Van Dooren, T and Rose, D.B. (2013, Nov. 2). Keeping Faith with the Dead: Mourning and De-extinction. https://www.thomvandooren.org/2013/11/02/keeping-faith-with-death-mourning-and-de-extinction/

(3) Rose, D.B. (2013). Death and grief in a world of kin. In G. Harvey (Ed.) The Handbook of Contemporary Animism  (pp. 137-147). Acumen Publishing. https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/abs/handbook-of-contemporary-animism/death-and-grief-in-a-world-of-kin/F67F7B7A2B9C225A3D5A24446BD3CE4E

(4) Harvey, G. (2005) Animism, Respecting the Living World. Columbia, Hurst.


 

Leina Sato: Ocean lover, Freediving Instructor, International Speaker, Author and Mother.
I was born in Tokyo and raised in Paris, France. As a teenager, I underwent a profound depression, an opportunity for rebirth. I moved to Hawaii and began encountering dolphins and whales in the wild. Through them, I awoke to myself and an ecological consciousness. WTR compelled me to take action on behalf of the cetacean populations of Japan by reconciling me with activism. In the face of anthropogenic extinction, how do we honor our pain and transform into deep love for the world? Through the Taiji Ceremony, I wanted to reinvent new rituals to nurture reverence and Active Hope. 

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