Japan has resumed commercial whaling after 31 years, meeting a long-cherished goal of traditionalists that's seen as a largely lost cause.
Whaling boats embarked Monday on their first commercial hunts since 1988, when Japan switched to so-called research whaling, but will stay within the country's exclusive economic waters.
Japan's six-month notice to withdraw from the International Whaling Commission took effect Sunday.
The Fisheries Agency said the catch quota through the end of this year is set at 227 whales, fewer than the 333 Japan hunted in the Antarctic in recent years.
The quota for this season's catch, planned for release in late June, was withheld until Monday apparently to avoid criticism during the Group of 20 summit that concluded over the weekend in Osaka.
As the boats left port, whalers, their families and local officials in two major whaling towns, Shimonoseki in southwestern Japan, which is Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's electoral constituency, and Kushiro in the north, celebrated the fresh start, hoping for a safe return and a good harvest.
"We hope commercial whaling will be on track as soon as possible, contribute to local prosperity and carry on Japan's rich whale culture to the next generation," Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasutoshi Nishimura told reporters in Tokyo.
Whale meat was an affordable source of protein during the lean times after World War II, with consumption peaking at 223,000 tons in 1962.
But whale was quickly replaced by other meats.
Whale meat consumption was down to 6,000 tons in 1986, a year before the commercial whaling moratorium imposed by the IWC.
Under the research hunts, which was criticized as a cover for commercial hunts as the meat was sold on the market, Japan at its peak caught as many as 1,200 whales but has drastically cut back on its catch in recent years after international protests escalated and whale meat consumption slumped at home.
Today, about 4,000-5,000 tons are supplied to Japan annually, or 30-40 grams of whale meat consumed per person a year, Fisheries Agency officials say.