Cat. 3, Activism 13 – BL-56 – Covert in Shimonoseki

Cat. 3, Activism 13 – BL-56 – Covert in Shimonoseki

Ch. 56 –  Covert in Shimonoseki

Technology in and of itself is neither good nor evil. It is our application of it that makes that determination.

Take ships, for example. They are just man-made objects that float on water, with some means of propulsion. There is nothing intrinsically good or evil about them. What makes a ship good or evil is its application in relation to the beholder’s morality. If anti-slavery is integral to our moral standards, then the slave-ships of centuries past were evil ships, not even counting the hideous cruelty involved. If to us killing whales is ultimately immoral, then whaling vessels are among the most evil of all ships, and the mother-ship of the largest whaling fleet in the world, the Nisshin Maru of the Japanese Antarctic whaling fleet, is ultimately the most evil ship of them all.

Speaking of morality, there are universal values no matter what culture one hails from, the leading positive amongst which being “Gay saw bud yook, mud see yue yun”, or “Do unto others what you wish done unto you,” whatever the language, in whatever the galaxy. And the leading negative value, other than “Thou shalt not kill,” is “Thou shalt not lie,” in which context the huge bold white “RESEARCH” painted on the side of the Nisshin Maru makes her doubly evil.

In 2005, I conducted the second Compassion for Animals Road Expedition (CARE-2), this time solo, which included speaking at the Animal Rights Conference for the second time, in July, this time in LA.

Earlier in the year, during an anti-seal-hunt demo in Victoria, BC, in March, I met up with Victoria activist Bruce Foerster to discuss a joint project for late October. He was the owner of an ecotourism business called Jaguar Reef in Belize, a long time Sea Shepherd supporter and donor, and a helicopter pilot. He had wanted to fly for Sea Shepherd, but so far, in vain. He understood the reason for flying a Sea Shepherd helicopter, and that is to locate the Japanese whaling fleet in the vast Southern Ocean, which could take up weeks of precious time and tons of fuel. It was the proverbial “looking for a needle in a haystack”, without even knowing where the haystack was.

Both Bruce and I are technophiles, and believe in using cutting edge technology to gain an upper hand over the opposition, especially when the opposition itself is using high tech for its own nefarious purposes. Back in 2005, the highest tech available was the GPS, the high end of which being still in R&D. A unit that could track a ship on the other side of the globe would need to be custom designed and built.  Our convergent thinking had it that if one such GPS unit could be planted on one of the whaling ships, it could save Sea Shepherd weeks of fruitless fuel-burning. Bruce took it upon himself to work directly with a tech firm in San Francisco to build such a unit. The price quoted was $2,000, which Bruce paid in advance. And since the whaling fleet traditionally leaves Japan around the second week of November, we decided to get there by the end of October, and obligated the contractor to have the unit delivered to us by then.

Regarding our own arrival, there would be little point in getting to Japan too early, since the fleet would not yet have been assembled. And even if we did, to plant the GPS too early would just risk it being discovered while the ship was still being prepped in port. According to the contractor’s specs, the unit would be about the size and thickness of a stack of three pancakes, and though it could be magnetically attached, it was not exactly easy to conceal. Once underway, however, the crew would focus more on the sea than the ship, and may never notice the presence of the device until the next time the ship gets painted.

We landed in the Narita international airport in Tokyo on November 1 – a bit of a late start due to other obligations. Bruce had asked the GPS-maker to ship the unit to the hotel once we had settled into one.

The first order of business was to locate the fleet. Projecting from the records, the fleet could assemble at any major seaport, or even a minor one – Yokohama, Shizuoka, Osaka, Kobe, Hiroshima, Shimonoseki, Nagasaki, in increasing distance due southwest from Tokyo, and of course Tokyo itself. There was no current info to indicate which one for 2005. And we didn’t exactly have all the time in the world to find it.

Almost on a hunch, with little intel support, and with Bruce’s trust, I steered a direct course for the second farthest one from Tokyo short of Nagasaki, and that was Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture – flying distance to/from Tokyo 820 km (510 miles), driving distance about 1000 km (600 miles).

Throughout the long drive, I could not shake the doubt that my hunch could be wrong, and that we were leaving the right port behind us. What then? Shimonoseki was at the tail end of Japan, even Taiji was closer to Tokyo. And what would Plan B be if Shimonoseki came up empty? Nagasaki would be my guess. Why? It is the southwestern-most port of Japan, and the fleet would be heading south towards Antarctica. But Shimonoseki, being the second most southwestern, did have a history of being a whaling port, was still first on my list. And if Shimonoseki did come up empty, then I’d head on to Nagasaki. And if Nagasaki, too, scored a zero? We’d cross that bridge if or when we came to it.

We drove non-stop on the main highway and made it to Shimonoseki in the late evening. We picked a hotel in downtown near the waterfront and bedded down for the night. Bruce emailed the hotel’s address to the GPS maker. The return email said that the unit “should be completed within two to three days”, and would be tested same day. After that, he would overnight-courier it to the hotel. That should give us a few days to plant it. Tight, but workable.

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 the foreground, and mountains on the opposite shore.

Bruce and I went for a short walk on the water front and, except for the inner tension, it was like a stroll in the park, and Shimonoseki was physically a beautiful city. But we noticed that this city, even more so than Tokyo, was all Japanese. There was not a single Caucasian person in sight other than Bruce himself the whole day we looked around. Bruce of course stuck out like a sore thumb, and received much unwanted attention, though the Japanese people were by and large much more discrete than some others I had experienced. As for me, being Oriental, even with a pony tail (which I had never seen any Japanese men wear), I could dissolve into a crowd, as long as I bore in mind the advice I’d received from more than one source to not advertise my Chinese ancestry, at pain of some special kind of discrimination or even abuse.

After breakfast, we retrieved the car from the parkade and began driving along the waterfront, looking for the whaling fleet if it was here. We came to 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 car, there was a uniformed officer standing there waiting for us. There was no preamble. He questioned us, in passable English, about why we were taking pictures. I said I was a tourist, smiling inwardly that taking pictures was what Japanese tourists were famous for. He did not seem amused or convinced, and asked what we felt about whaling. Whaling? Where did that come from? We didn’t betray any of that. We just looked at each other innocently and shrugged. He seemed more interested in Bruce than in me. After a bit, unable to pin us down on anything, he let us go.

We also did some walking around town, and found whale meat for sale in department stores, and whale dishes in restaurant menus.

After lunch, we continued to randomly cruise the waterfront by car. Within 15 minutes, we sighted a harpoon boat inside a tightly packed moorage protected by a breakwater. Anyone not familiar with the ships of the Antarctic fleet would have shouted “Eureka!”, but I did not, since this boat was not one of them.

At some point we encountered a skyscraper which was in fact an observation tower with a metal endo-skeleton and a gleaming glass exterior. Up the center was the elevator shaft. I suggested that we go up it 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 coin-activated telescope. What I saw through it made me exclaim, “Hey, Bro! Guess what!”


“Check this out for yourself.”

Bruce peeped through the telescope. “Oh my God! The Nisshin Maru!!”

There was a large pier sticking out into the harbor (which in fact was not a harbor but a mile-wide strait between Honshu Island and the southwest-most island where Nagasaki is situated, through which freighters plowed at high speed) long enough to accommodate three ships her size end-to-end. The evil ship was tied to the outermost berth at the end of the pier. The pier itself looked like part of a complex and fenced high security installation.

“Little did the creators of this observation tower know that it would one day serve the anti-Japanese-whaling cause,” I quipped to Bruce.

From the tower, we also saw the hotel, and the shopping center where the rental car was parked. The observation deck covered 360 degrees of view, so we saw the entire city from 300 feet above. Shimonoseki was a different sort of city, with the houses densely packed and hardly a straight street in sight.

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

I looked at it through the telescope. “Well, well, well,” I murmured after some seconds.

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

“An Antarctic fleet harpoon boat. I bet that’s the blood stained Yushin Maru,” I said while yielding the telescope to Bruce.

Since the Nisshin Maru looked heavily guarded, we went towards the aquarium to check out the harpoon boat after exiting the tower. It was indeed the Yushin Maru, its harpoon mounted but covered. She was there all by herself, and not guarded. There was even a gangplank between the shore and the boat. I could have walked right on board and planted the GPS there and then, had we the unit in our possession.


The next day, still wanting for a solution to access the Nisshin Maru, we decided to check out the dolphins in the aquarium. To our amazement two other harpoon ships had arrived overnight and were tied there behind the building, all three in naval grey, plus two white fleet tenders. Some were festooned with colorful banners, 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” and see how they define it.

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. Again, I could have walked right aboard either one had I wanted to, but my quarry was the Nisshin Maru, my reason being that she is much larger, and so presumably the GPS unit would be less likely to be discovered.

On the third day, we decided to brave the security dock to recon the Nisshin Maru for the best way to get on board. Again because Bruce was too conspicuous, I decided once more to do it on my own and pretend to be just another Japanese, which Bruce certainly couldn’t no matter how hard he’d try.

When I got there, on foot, with nothing but my camera in my hands, 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 the place.

The dock was long enough for three ships. There was a Chinese freighter and a South Korean freighter tied in behind the Nisshin Maru, which was the farthest one 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 at the bow of the Chinese ship, I was at the stern of the Nisshin Maru, where the slipway caught my eyes. At once I said to myself, “This is the way in. Access by wetsuit or raft.”

I took as many pictures of the ship as I dared, the purpose being to find a good spot to place the GPS unit. I walked a little farther, to where “RESEARCH” was almost right in my face. I made an ironic mental note to look up “research” in the Japanese dictionary as well. But there were workers in yellow hardhats on both the rock and on the ship. I took a few more pictures and beat an unhurried retreat, passing the slipway again.

Nisshin Maru

The distinguishing feature of a whaling factory ship is the slipway at the stern, which serves as a ramp by which whale carcasses are dragged by their tails from the sea on to the main deck to be butchered. It is wide open and gateless. Either or both of us could ascend the ramp under the cover of darkness, conceal the GPS unit somewhere, then slip back into the water. Subsequent nocturnal drive-bys showed the ship lit up like a Christmas tree. Again, I favoured just one person instead of two, because it was a one-person job, and two would be more visible than one.

The dock was crawling with workers in the process of loading the ship, all in hard-hats, which made my ponytail even more conspicuous. Indeed, at that point, I caught the attention of a uniformed guard. He walked straight up to me and asked me something in Japanese. I replied in English that I did not speak Japanese, that I was a Canadian tourist, and that I had a cousin working on the Chinese freighter, and that I was there to take some pictures of the Chinese 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, on foot. In retrospect, I should have walked straight for the shopping centre and merge into the crowd, but I stayed on the waterfront. At one point, about halfway to the aquarium, I came across a long and narrow parking lot along the waterfront where a dozen small coastal freighters were tied. I took some random pictures of these ships to show that I was just a “ship-freak” in case I was again questioned.

Sure enough, my progress in the parking lot was blocked by a white van which passed me from behind. Two plain clothes men came out and ordered me to stop.

One of them asked me straight away, in English, why I was taking photos of the Nisshin Maru – in English. I said that I was mainly interested in the Chinese freighter, and mentioned my “cousin”. 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 pics of the Chinese ship than of the Nisshin Maru.

“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 less than one minute before. I was betting that they would just take my word for it.

“Where is the car?”

Damn, I guess he didn’t.

“In the parking garage of the shopping center over there,” I pointed.

“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 two kilometers away and one block from the hotel which did not have its own parking facility. Why on foot and not just by van? I wondered. While we walked, with the van in tow, 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 some were trick questions. I’ve been called “stoic”, “unflappable”, “calm and cool”, etc., under various circumstances, and all these came in play to keep me afloat. But that was the longest 2 km I had ever walked. About half way through, I even began to like the guy, and enjoy a little our apparent chit-chat, which of course it wasn’t. But all the while I was saying to myself, “Uh oh, what am I gonna do when we get to the car?”

When we did get 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 betting again this time that he would not go all the way to the hotel room, but my options were limited anyway. Meanwhile, the interrogator used his cell phone to photograph the license plate of the rental car.

“Which hotel?” he said.

“That one,” I said, pointing at it.

“Let’s go.”

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, in bed. The interrogator followed me right in, and I thought that was it. But then again, fate intervened, for the second time, in the same way at exactly the right time. The interrogator’s cell phone had not rung throughout, but it rang right there and then. He went out to the hall way to answer it. His partner was just coming down the corridor. Quickly, I whispered to Bruce, “We’re tourists going from Hiroshima to Nagasaki to pay respect to the war dead. You have no idea that I went to the dock.” No sooner had Bruce heard it than the guy came back in. He asked Bruce exactly that question, and Bruce answered it correctly with no sign of stress.

After checking my passport, they escorted me down to the coffee shop in the lobby to interrogate me for another half an hour over coffee, leaving Bruce in the room unmolested. Do they always interrogate people in coffee shops and cafes? I looked around to see if there were other threesomes with two talking to one, but ours was the only odd-numbered group. At the end, they, too, called it quits. So I won a passive victory. All told, from beginning to end, the whole ordeal lasted almost three hours. Strangely, my interrogator made me the same farewell gift as the one given me by the Taiji interrogators – a pack of Japanese Kleenex. Was it a parting jab symbolic of them having made they victims sweat? I pocketed it for future use.

Long story short, over the next few days, we kept on waiting for the GPS unit, in vain. The whaling fleet left port on November 8, without the GPS unit on board. On the same day, Bruce received an email from the GPS guy in San Francisco, saying that the unit did not work as expected, and that it would take one or two days to fix. Bruce told him, “Too late.” The guy apologetically invited Bruce to come by for coffee whenever he found himself in the Bay area.

Bruce rebooked his return plane ticket to Canada for Nov. 10. The rental-car’s Japanese-only 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, sweating and swearing the whole way. I put the Japanese Kleenex to good use. When we finally arrived, Bruce was within 5 minutes of the plane’s scheduled departure time. The ticket agent had to call the plane for it to wait, and Bruce had to run nearly a mile with his luggage to make it, but he did, barely.

My own adventure came only a few weeks later when, in Osaka, on a Monday night, some non-Japanese criminal cleaned me out, leaving me with no cash, no credit card, a rental car with less than half a tank of gas, and my prebooked return plane ticket from the Narita airport back to Canada on Thursday, two days hence. Literally, I did not have a single yen’s worth in any currency – for fuel, food, lodging and highway tolls from Osaka to Tokyo. There were only three things I could do: one, do without food, two, sleep in the car, and three, ask Bruce for help.

True to form and friendship Bruce came through promptly, and wired a grand via Western Union to a bank near the hotel, due to arrive first thing the next morning. This put my mind at ease. So what if I had to sleep in the car and do without food. With some cash in my pocket, I would have a day and a half to drive back to Tokyo, with one night in a comfortable hotel somewhere on route. I might even be able to do some leisurely touring of Hiroshima. Relaxing or what? So, I slept in the car that night, hungry, but expecting that the next day would be rosy. The next morning, Wednesday, I went to the bank, and was shocked to find out that it was closed! – Wednesdays being the bankers’ holiday in Japan. A terribly long day, with zero food intake, car seat for a bed, and very real worries all night. The chance of me missing my flight was hardly negligible.

First thing Thursday morning, I went to the bank, and found that it wouldn’t be open until 9 a.m. The bank manager, or whoever he was, puttered around a whole hour without paying me the least attention. Funny if it was not so nerve racking, but I pictured him playing at least three rounds of miniature golf in his office and corridors. I had calculated that to make the flight, I would have to start driving by 10 latest. By 10:15, that damned bureaucratic piece of living lard was still cranking himself up on first gear. Finally, at 10:30, I knocked on his door, which was left ajar. To hell with Japanese etiquette, however they would handle the situation! I said, “Excuse me, sir, but could you please release my funds at your earliest convenience? I have a plane to catch in Tokyo, to meet with the Canadian prime minister in Ottawa. If I miss this meeting due to missing the flight caused by inefficiency at this bank, there might be an international incident!” I got the money at 10:31. Why I didn’t do that half an hour earlier was beyond me. Perhaps only desperation breeds ingenuity.

For the third day, I had no food in my stomach, and had no time to stop anywhere for lunch. I stayed in the passing lane from Osaka to Tokyo the whole way, flashing my high beams at any car in my path, and blasting the horn. With such imperious behavior, I got the respect I wanted. Every car pulled over to let me pass. Where the highway cops were I had no idea; I was just thankful there were no red-and-blue lights flashing in my rear view mirror. Like Bruce, I arrived at the Narita airport with no more than ten minutes to spare. I certainly had no time to following procedure to properly return the rental car. The return depot for some reason was more than a mile from the airport building. After dropping the car off, I would have to wait for a car to come from the airport to come and fetch me. Screw that! I drove straight for the departure concourse and parked the car at the parkade across the street. So charge me! They had to hold the plane past the scheduled departure time for my huffing and puffing arrival after that mile-long luggage-laden sprint. That was too much for a 61 year old dude, but after what I thought to be a heart attack, I felt just fine.


*     *     *     *     *


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *