A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Taiji
Commentary by Scott West
Prior to February 16, 2014, I had made six visits to Japan. Each one had its own interesting development. The first time was as a sailor in the US Navy in early 1979. I spent three months there. The next time was with my then 16-year-old daughter, Elora, in September 2010. This is when Captain Watson had asked us to go find out what would happen if Sea Shepherd never left Taiji. From there, the Cove Guardian campaign began. Following that, I arrived in March 2011, in time to experience first hand a 9.0 earthquake and its aftermath. Then came another trip in May 2011, where I caught some of the Taiji dolphin killers doing their dirty deeds to whales in northern Japan. Trip number five was in December 2011, when we waved goodbye to the Nisshin Maru and its crew as it left port to poach whales in the Antarctic Whale Sanctuary. During that trip, Cove Guardian Erwin Vermeulen was arrested and falsely charged with assault. He was acquitted at trial. I was detained upon entry to Japan and interrogated for several hours before being admitted. The sixth time was in March 2012, when I traveled to Taiji again with Elora. We were both detained and questioned upon entry, but were eventually admitted.
Now push ahead about two years to February 16, 2014. I traveled alone from Seattle to Seoul, made a quick connection at Inchon, and flew to Osaka Kansai (KIX). I landed at about 9:30 pm and intended to spend just 13 days in Taiji, as the season is soon coming to a close. I had a hotel room arranged at the airport and a rental car lined up for the next morning.
As expected, I was pulled out for interrogation, which this time (after about four hours) ended in my being denied entry. The official reason is that my activities are inconsistent with a tourist visa. The real reason, I was told, is that my photography of Taiji “fishermen” (dolphin killers) upset them and because I make statements to them that they bring shame on Japan. You can hear for yourself if you are interested. I recorded the entire encounter, but have provided a 14-minute clip here. My voice is hoarse in the clip. The woman is an interpreter hired by Japanese Immigration and she was on a speakerphone. The male speaking Japanese is the Immigration official.
This was when it got truly weird. When you consider that much of the rhetoric against Sea Shepherd (and they clearly knew I was Sea Shepherd – especially since I was dressed in Sea Shepherd and Cove Guardian attire) from the government of Japan includes references to Sea Shepherds as “terrorists,” you would think that they would want to keep an eye on me. But, no. It seems that in this and in many other things, the Government of Japan lies to everyone.
It was now about 1:30 am (February 17) and I had just been released into the closed and deserted secure part of KIX airport. I had asked if I could go to my hotel and was told to find a couch. I was hoping to be sent to the detention facility at Immigration so I could at least have a bed and a banana to eat, but that did not happen either. No, I was abandoned to my own devices within a closed and deserted secure section of an international airport. Think about that. If I were inclined to mischief, just imagine what a field day I could have had!
To make it even more difficult to believe, I was provided with my checked bag. At first, I was told that Customs had to hold my bag overnight, and I was charged $20.00 (US) for that privilege. Soon after, though, an airline employee ran around (literally running) the closed and deserted secure part of the airport and found me. He returned my $20, agreed to take my photo, and brought me down to a security point to collect my bag.
Within that bag was a tiny little Swiss Army fingernail knife, scissors, and file. Tiny. They did run the bag through an X-ray and I had to surrender this knife. If I were looking for a weapon, offensive or defensive, that little penknife is the last thing I would consider. I can do a lot more damage with the writing pen I had in my pocket. Oh yeah, within my bag was my LARGE tube of toothpaste and some other liquids within my toiletries. I seem to recall that TSA and other travel security groups frown upon someone having such items in a secure section of an airport. Apparently, it is not so in Japan.
I almost forgot. They inspected, but let me keep the monopod for my camera, which had traveled in the checked bag. Now this is not some sissy monopod. No sir, this one is stout. In fact, one could consider using it as a club, but of course that would be illegal. For me, it is just a monopod.
So here I was wandering about the airport (Did I mention that it was a closed and deserted secure section of an international airport?) in the middle of the night. I did occasionally see a guard from a private security firm. We waved at each other. I asked one where I could get a beer. He was very friendly and pointed out a couple of bars, but informed me that they would not be open until 7 am. I used my time to take a couple of pictures (and to add some props for those photographs.)
I found a nice cozy place to try to catch some ZZZZs. And of course like any good hitchhiker, I knew where my towel was. See photo.
At about 4 am or so, I was rousted by two uniformed, for-real, Japanese police officers. I was glad to see them. I figure if anyone knew where I could get a beer (or a doughnut), it would be these guys. I know this was true because, as I explained to them, I am a retired cop. Unfortunately, they provided the same information about the beer as the security guard had done.
These two guys very politely and in English told me that the airport is closed and that I could not be there. Really? I explained that I had been denied entry to Japan and that I did not have my passport. I was to catch a plane out of Japan later that day. They asked me why I was denied and I told them it was because my photography of dolphin killers upset the killers. They said they thought that was ridiculous. I agreed with them. I then added that it probably also had something to do with my association with Sea Shepherd; I then pointed to my shirt, which they then seemed to notice for the first time. (To their credit, it was late.) They then repeated that the denial was “ridiculous.” I held out my hands so they could handcuff me. I figured if I could not be there and could not leave, the only option was to be arrested. At least I would have a bed. They told me there would be no arrest, and after making positive comments about my tattoos, encouraged me to have a good evening.
Finally, it was 7 am and the bars opened.
I learned from the airline that I was on a 12:50 pm flight to Inchon and then, after a three-hour lay over, on a flight back to Seattle. The airline was entrusted with my passport. I was finally able to give the airline my checked bag (from within the secure part of the airport) which made movement a lot easier (without all those gadgets, monopod, and liquids holding me back).
The morning moves slowly. It may be because I was a bit tired. At one point, I was sitting at a small table with a cold beer handy. There is a group of late teens, early 20s Japanese kids trying to take a group selfie across from me. I get up and offer to take their photo and they are quite happy for the assist. One of the girls is a bit more observant than police officers at 4 am and says to her friends, “Sea Shepherd-o!” They all repeat the words. I smile, they smile, and I click their photo. They soon move away.
I arrived back at the Seattle airport 47 hours after I departed.
Operation Infinite Patience (Cove Guardians)
Director, Intelligence and Investigations
Sea Shepherd Conservation Society
Special Agent-in-Charge (retired)
United States Environmental Protection Agency
Criminal Investigation Division
Photos from my stay at the airport
site for more information.