Five small ships sailed out of harbour on Monday in Japan's first commercial whale hunt in more than three decades, a move that has aroused global condemnation and fears for the fate of whales.
Japan has long said few whale species are endangered, and news in December that it was leaving the International Whaling Commission (IWC) to resume hunting was the culmination of years of campaigns by industry supporters and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose constituency includes a city that has long whaled.
"If we had more whale available, we'd eat it more," said Sachiko Sakai, a 66-year-old taxi driver in Kushiro, a gritty port city on the northernmost main island of Hokkaido, where the whaling ships were waved out of harbour in a brief ceremony.
"It's part of Japan's food culture," said Sakai, adding that she ate a lot of whale as a child. "The world opposes killing whales, but you can say the same thing about many of the animals bred on land and killed for food."
The ships, which are set to be joined by vessels from the southern port of Shimonoseki, will spend much of the summer hunting for minke and Baird's beaked whales.
Crew in orange life vests took positions on the decks as the blue-hulled ships sailed out of Kushiro, some with red banners fluttering from their masts.
Japan began whaling for scientific research a year after a 1986 ban on commercial whaling, aiming to gather what it called crucial population data, but it abandoned commercial whaling in 1988.
Critics said the programme was simply commercial whaling in disguise, after the meat of animals taken in scientific whaling ended up on store shelves and in restaurants.
This year's quota for commercial whaling, including minkes, sei whales and Bryde's whales, is 227, the Fisheries Agency said. The quota, to be set annually, is less than the 330 whales Japan harvested in the Antarctic until recently.
Environmentalists said the launch was delayed until after a summit of leaders of G20 major economies that Japan hosted, but whaling proponents have denied this.
"This is a sad day for whale protection globally," said Nicola Beynon of Humane Society International.
"The word 'research' may have been removed from the side of the factory ship, finally ending Japan's charade of harpooning whales under the guise of science, but these magnificent creatures will still be slaughtered for no legitimate reason," Beynon, based in Australia, said in a statement.
Whaling is a tiny industry in Japan. Whale makes up about 0.1 percent of all meat eaten in a year, with about 300 people directly linked to whaling.
Japan's annual supplies of about 4,000 tonnes to 5,000 tonnes amount to 40 gm to 50 gm for each citizen, or about the weight of half an apple. Even whaling supporters say building demand will take time.
Patrick Ramage, head of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, called the move a face-saving solution that could eventually lead Japan to abandon whaling.
"It's a good decision for whales, it's a good decision for Japan, and it's a good decision for international marine conservation," he said.