Around five fishing boats set sail to hunt whales in north-east Japan on Monday, July 1, marking the end of the country's 30-year-old restriction on commercial whaling. The development followed Japan's contentious withdrawal from the International Whaling Commission (IWC).
The country's fisheries agency has given permission to hunt seasonal quota of 227 whales, including 52 minkes, 150 Bryde's and 25 sei whales, during this year's hunting season, which lasts until December. According to reports, five fishing vessels from Kushiro and three whaling boats from Shimonoseki in southwestern Japan set sail in the morning to hunt whales off its shores.
In Japan, whale meat has cultural significance due to its popularity as a cheap source of protein. Some have welcomed Japan's decision as a cultural awakening.
In Wakayama Prefecture, known for its whale and dolphin hunting, the head of the Japan Small Whaling Association, Yoshifumi Kai said: "People have hunted whales for more than 400 years in my home town."
He also said that he is "excited" to resume commercial fishing, "my heart is overflowing with happiness, and I'm deeply moved," he added.
A poll conducted by news agency NHK revealed 53 percent of Japanese citizens agreed with the IWC withdrawal decision, compared with 37 percent who opposed the move.
Some have claimed international condemnation on Japan's decision is a societal decision where foreign players don't get to decide. "If you force others not to eat what you do not eat yourself, that's cultural imperialism," Hideki Moronuki, senior fisheries negotiator at Japan's Fisheries Agency, told Al Jazeera.
Extinction or Conservation?
Last year, when Japan announced its plan to withdraw from IWC, environmental activists had pointed out that the purpose of the 1986 convention was to prevent the extinction of some species such as minke whales.
Japan has been the target of international criticism for hunting whales in the Antarctic waters under IWC's "scientific research" clause. The availability of whale meat in the local markets confirmed suspicions of commercial whaling being conducted under the guise of research.
Australia had accused Japan in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 2010 for violating international norms. In 2013, ICJ had ruled that Japan's whaling program was not for scientific purposes. But despite international criticism, in 2016, commercial whalers killed 333 minke whales, according to Japan's Institute for Cetacean Research.
With the recent withdrawal, Japan would be conducting coastal whaling as the country won't be allowed to fish in international waters like before. Some environmentalists have argued that the resumption of whaling will decrease as both its consumption and availability will be hampered.
Government data reveals the annual consumption of whale meat fell from 200,000 tons in the 1960s, to around 5,000 tons in recent years.
With the dwindling popularity of whale meat in Japan, the commercialising is also seen as a step towards ending of commercial whaling itself.
Patrick Ramage, director of marine conservation, International Fund for Animal Welfare, said the resumption of commercial whaling "will not magically increase market demand".
"This is a face-saving way out of whaling, the beginning of the end of Japanese whaling," he said at a recent press conference.