DOLPHIN DEATHS: A CULTURAL AFFAIR

SAVE JAPAN DOLPHINS.org feature on performances by Russ Ligtas in Taiji 
by Leah Lemieux. 


Here in Taiji we were recently pleased to welcome an unusual addition into our midst: Artist and performer Russ Ligtas from Cebu (in the Philippines). 

Russ, who among his many interests studies the art of Japanese Butoh traditional dance, had made his way to the Cove in Taiji for a series of performances dedicated to the dolphins that are killed here. In his home country, Russ participates regularly in scientific surveys of several local dolphin species and has come to have a deep respect and affection for them.

"In the Philippines, some people have made fairly decent livings out of the dolphin watching industry, allowing the cetaceans to thrive whilst locals earn income. Dolphins have helped put some of our islands in the tourism map and contributed to their economic progress. In Taiji, Japan, the dolphins are slaughtered by the thousands year after year as bycatch from the dolphin trade and a "tradition" that no longer holds any relevance today, especially because of recent studies showing cetacean intelligence and personhood."

This was Russ' first time experiencing the difficulties of international travel and when we finally arrived at the Cove for his first performance, we were soon greeted by a welcome sight: several of my colleagues ambled into the Cove aboard Ady Gil's boat from seaward to film Russ' performance from another angle! Word quickly spread and the place was soon fully stocked with around 15 police who had turned out to see what was going on. But there was more, as Ady's boat was soon joined by the coast guard's zodiac in the Cove. Russ was in the public bathroom putting on his costume, which includes very striking white face paint. I was startled by a shout of surprise as one officer discovered the "ghost" in the bath room – the officer was a good sport, and we all had a good laugh about it together. As has become mandatory here now, before Russ could perform, he had to go through the passport check procedure, while the officers peered curiously at him. He was entirely relaxed about it all, which also put the police at their ease too.

I had worried that we might be barred from this enacting this project in a public place. But this did not happen, for which I am extremely grateful.

Finally, everyone settled down, and Russ began to perform on the shoreline of the Cove while cameras rolled and clicked.

Butoh dance is a more modern adaptation stemming from more traditional art forms like Kabuki theatre. It often addresses difficult social issues through the expressive medium of dance and voice. Russ' performance, like his white visage, was as haunting as it was captivating. The emotions we all struggle with here in Taiji were portrayed with the power that strikes one into silence: the anguish, the grief, the despondence, the rage, and the empty lack of understanding.... 

To say it was a powerful performance would be a terrible understatement. It may be that those in our official audience felt this too in some way, because Russ's Butoh performances kept a faithful and growing following throughout his short time here, despite the fact that his artistic stance was clearly of no threat, and the authorities knew this. 

You can see more of Russ' work at his fine website:


During Russ' short time here, two pods of beautiful Risso's dolphins, totaling around 20 individuals, including tiny babies, were slaughtered in the Cove. Having to witness this atrocity with one's own eyes changes a person forever, and I know Russ took these experiences and incorporated them into his skillful artistic expression.

There are times when art goes where activism cannot and where it can touch or reach those who might otherwise remain deaf and blind to issues of cruelty and suffering.

I overheard much discussion over the meaning of Russ's Cove performances among the officers, and I think that is one of the aims of good art – to invite thought, discussion and, one can always, hope, change.
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Photography by Leah Lemieux.

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