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A Sea Cow Goes to Court. Extinction and Animal Agency in a Struggle Against Militarism

Marius Palz


In Japan’s southernmost prefecture, Okinawa, the Japanese government is constructing a new military base for the United States Marine Corps despite ongoing local opposition and protest. Sea grass beds, which are potential feeding grounds of the critically endangered Okinawa dugong, are situated within the construction area. Because of its critical status close to regional extinction, the dugong was declared a Natural Monument of Japan in 1972, arguably putting it under protection of the United States National Historic Preservation Act in context of the base construction. Based on this assumption, and the dugong’s cultural significance for the people of Okinawa, the issue was brought to an American court, a rare case where an animal plays a central role in a lawsuit dealing with cultural property. Based on Eduardo Kohn’s anthropology beyond the human and his thoughts on life as a semiotic process the article explores the entanglements between dugongs and people. I argue that in this process dugongs play an active role. Through their interpretation of the generated indexical signs at the construction site and their resulting behaviour, these animals give humans the opportunity to convert their presence and absence into the sphere of symbolic human interaction.


base; court case; dugong; Eduardo Kohn; environmental justice; extinction; multispecies ethnography; Okinawa; semiotics; symbols.

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.7358/rela-2020-0102-palz

Copyright (©) 2021 Marius Palz – Editorial format and Graphical layout: copyright (©) LED Edizioni Universitarie

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Relations. Beyond Anthropocentrism
Registered by Tribunale di Milano (04/05/2012 n. 211)
Online ISSN 2280-9643 - Print ISSN 2283-3196

Executive Editor: Francesco Allegri
Associate Editor: Matteo Andreozzi 
Review Editors: Sofia Bonicalzi - Eleonora Adorni
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