[ON MY WAR PATH – 015 – Undercover in Shimonoseki, Japan]

[ON MY WAR PATH – 015 – Undercover in Shimonoseki, Japan]

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. Finally, this series is called [ON MY WAR PATH] of which this episode is certainly one.

In 2004, I went solo to Taiji, Japan, funded by a well known wildlife protection organization, to perform an experiment that could save dolphins from death and capture, and it was successful. In the 2-week period in the fall during which the experiment was in progress, no dolphins were captured or killed. I have written about this mission earlier in this site, so I’m not going to repeat myself.

In 2005, I returned to Taiji with two other activists to seek a more permanent solution than one lasting only two weeks. 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 Foerster, 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.

Anthony Marr and Bruce Foerster in Shimonoseki, Japan, with whaling vessels in the background, November 2005

Our objective in this story I’m telling was to board one of the ships 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 firmly 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.

Japan, with Tokyo on right and Nagasaki on left

Almost on a hunch, with little informational support, I steered a direct course for Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture, the second farthest port to Tokyo, second only to Nagasaki, flying distance to/from Tokyo 510 miles (820 km), driving distance about 600 miles (~1000km).

Yamaguchi Prefecture

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 southern-most port of Japan, and the fleet would be heading south. But Shimonoseki did have a history of being a whaling port.

Japanese highways are not exactly foreigner-friendly. The road signs were all in Japanese. Even the onboard GPS in the rental car was in Japanese only. 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 too far before getting utterly lost.


Anyway, I made it to Shimonoseki in good time, and we arrived in the dark of the night. 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 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 tenseness in our hearts, it was like a walk in the park. But we noticed that Shimonoseki, more than Tokyo, is all Japanese. There was not another Caucasian person in sight the whole day we walked around. Bruce received much unwanted attention, though the Japanese people were more discrete than some others I’ve seen.

Shimonoseki, Japan

Satellite view of Shimonoseki

Views of Shimonoseki Harbor

Shimonoseki is not exactly a harbor, but a passage way, through which ships plow at high speed

Reminded me of Vancouver’s Lions Gate Bridge

The dock from where I took the above pictures.

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 the photos. I said I was a tourist, smiling inwardly that taking pictures was what Japanese tourists were notorious for. He did not seem amused, and asked what we felt about whaling. We just looked at each other innocently and shrugged. He seemed more interested in Bruce, presumably due to Bruce’s “exotic” appearance. Bruce stayed vague and evasive. After a bit, unable to pin us down on anything, he let us go.

On our initial exploration, just randomly cruising the docks looking for whaling vessels

Voila! The first whaling vessel sighted, but I did not shout “Eureka!”, since it did not look like one of the Antarctic fleet catch boats

Walking around town, we found whale meat for sale in department stores.

Learn this Chinese/Japanese word: “Whale”. It even says “health food” (in smaller size), in spite of the sky high mercury content.

Restaurant menu featuring whale-meat cuisine.

Little did the creators of this observation tower know that it would one day serve the anti-whaling cause.

Prior to us ascending the tower for our discovery.

Shimonoseki from the tower.

Shopping center where the rental car was parked during the subsequent 2-hour interrogation, with the hotel in the background (see account below).

A corner of a dock complex.

“Hey, Bruce! Guess what!”


“You’ve gotta take a look at this yourself, bro!”

“OMG! The Nishin Maru!!!”

“See that white building on the waterfront?” Bruce said, “It must be the aquarium. I hear that there are some Taiji-caught dolphins in there.”

“Well, well, well,” I murmured, while looking through the pay-per-minite telescope in the direction of the aquarium.

“Well what?” asked Bruce, who was using just his naked eyes

“Check this out. An Antarctic fleet catch boat. The fleet is here,” I said while yielding to Bruce the telescope.

After exiting the tower, since the Nishin Maru seemed guarded, we went towards the aquarium to check out the catch boat, and there it was, looking suitably menacing at close quarters

… with harpoon mounted.

The catch boat (~700 tons) and its tender.

The next day, still wanting for a solution to access the Nishin Maru, we decided to check out the dolphins in the aquarium, and, to our amazement the entire peripheral whaling fleet was there, complete with three catch boats.

Festooned with festive banners.

And a white tender.

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 expensive, so, Bruce decided to not go in, saying that it would be less conspicuous if I went in. Indeed, Shimonoseki so far that I’d seen, was Caucasians-free, and he with his sandy hair and European features, seemed to be the lightning rod of attention. So, I went by my self while Bruce just loitered outside.

The whaling fleet was indeed moored at the aquarium’s water-frontage.

I could have walked right onboard if I had wanted to. But I was aiming for the Nishin Maru.

The dolphin pool was right where the fleet was moored.

The Shimonoseki Aquarium – where whaling vessels and Taiji-captured dolphins went within a stone’s throw from each other.

Where free humans came to gawk at captive dolphins.

Like gold fish in a bowl.

Interior of dolphin prison.

A monument featuring a steel sculpture of a Blue whale.

The caption said, “Our gratitude to whales.” I should look up a Japanese dictionary for the word “gratitude”.

I used max zoom to take this pic of Bruce “under observation”.

On the 5th day, we decided to brave the security dock to check out the Nishin Maru. Because Bruce WAS too conspicuous, I decided to do it on my own. Here I was approaching the dock on foot.

Through the ground level haze, I could discern the rear slipway.

Biting the bullet, I walked right on to the dock, as if I owned it.

The workers glanced at me, but I nonchalantly walked on.

I observed that the Nishin Maru was being loaded.

There was a Chinese ship and a Korean ship tied in behind the Nishin Maru. I took pictures of them as well, in case I was intercepted and questioned.

One of the purposes for my reconnaissance was to determine the best way to board the ship at night. Looking at this, my mind clicked. Access by raft? Or by wet suit?

The ship was busy by day, and lit up like a Christmas tree at night. Contemplating night action, my ninja instinct kicked in. I did bring all-black clothing.

I also have to look into a Japanese dictionary for their definition of “Research”.

One more picture of the Chinese freighter, and I was off.

Unfortunately, on my way out, I was indeed intercepted by a uniformed guard. He asked me what I was doing on the dock. I said that I had a cousin working on the Chinese vessel, and I was there to take a picture of his ship. I knew it 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 talk. I took the opportunity to slip 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, on a strertch of waterfront where a dozen small freighters were tied, I stopped to take more pcitures of these ships in case I was further harassed, and, lo and behold, I was. It was a long parking lot parallel to the road, and in the middle of it, my progress was blocked by a white van which came from behind. Two plain clothes men came out and ordered me to stop.

Where I was intercepted by plain-clothes police followed by a 2-hour interrogation (see account below)

One of them, who spoke passable English, asked me straight out why I was taking photos of the Nishin 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 compuiter 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 Nishin 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 who? “Sea Shepherd, the group that harasses our whaling fleet.” Oh, THAT group. I’ve heard about them. “What about Greenpeace?” That I know. It started in Canada, yes. But, no, I’m not a member of Greenpeace.

He turned to asking why I was in Shimonoseki. I said I was a tourist. “But why Shimonoseki?” Oh, I was just passing through, from Hiroshima to Nagasaki. “What is in Hiroshima and Nagasaki for you?” To pay my respects to the war dead.

He asked to see my passport. I said that I had left it in my rental car, which in fact it wasn’t. “Where is the car?” In the parking lot of the 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 shopping centre maybe 2 kilometers away. 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, etc. Many of the questions were repeats, and many were trick questions. I’ve been called “calm and cool”, “unflappable”, “stoic”, etc. under different circumstances, and all these came in 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?” Which eventually we did. I said that it was in the car to prevent saying that it was in my hotel, where Bruce was. I was banking that he would not call my bluff, but he did. Now, I had to fess up. Meanwhile, he used his cell phone to photograph the license plate.

“Oh, damn!” I said after pretending to look through the car for the passport, of course in vain. “So where is it?” Very sorry, it is at the hotel. “Which hotel?” That one, I said, pointing. And off we went towards the hotel, with the white van again in tow.

Now my new concern became coordination with Bruce, because I had just made up the Hiroshima-to-Nagasaki story on the spot, of which Bruce was unaware. 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 two men 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, and he went out to the hall way to answer it, while his partner became distracted by the call. Quickly, I whispered to Bruce, “We are tourists going from Hiroshima to Nagasaki to pay respect to the war dead.” 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 lobby coffee shop to interrogate me for another half an hour, at the end of which they called it quits, and, very strangely, 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 Tokyo Narita airport for Bruce to fly back to Canada.

But there is a final twist to this story. Due to the confusion in the GPS, it took us through a very circuitous and congested route to the Narita Airport, while we sweated and cursed 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 to Taiji, but, as I’ve said before, it was another story.

Anthony Marr, Founder and President
Heal Our Planet Earth (HOPE)
Global Anti-Hunting Coalition (GAHC)
http://www.DearHomoSapiens.blogspot.com (AM’s 3rd-book-in-the-making)


3 thoughts on “[ON MY WAR PATH – 015 – Undercover in Shimonoseki, Japan]

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