A Japanese whaling fleet, the first since the UN's top court ordered Tokyo to stop killing the mammals in the Antarctic under the guise of research, has left port under tight security with a lowered target of whales to be killed along the country's northern coast.
Four ships departed from the fishing town of Ayukawa in the northeast on Saturday, marking this season's start to a coastal whaling programme not covered by the International Court of Justice's landmark ruling - which found Japan's
Southern Ocean expedition was a commercial activity masquerading as research.
Some observers had predicted the Japanese government would use the cover of last month's court ruling to abandon what many have long considered the facade of a scientific hunt.
But Tokyo's decision to continue whaling is likely to set off a new battle with critics who had hoped the ruling would bring an end to a slaughter that the Japanese government has embraced as part of the island nation's cultural heritage.
Some Japanese politicians have derided criticism from abroad as little more than cultural imperialism by the West, while locals in Ayukawa expressed fears the court's decision could ultimately ruin their livelihoods.
Around 10:30 am local time (01:30 GMT), whistles sounded as the flotilla, accompanied by a trio of coastguard patrol boats, set off following a ceremony attended by about 100 local dignitaries and crew, the AFP news agency reported.
The event, however, witnessed no protesters among the crowd, an element common at the launch of the Antarctic hunt which sometimes turned violent as activists clashed with whaling crews
Ayukawa was ravaged by Japan's 2011 tsunami and still bears the scars of the disaster. Local people say their small community's existence rests heavily on the hunt.
Yuki Inomata, who works in a local whale meat processing factory, said he was "glad" that the annual hunt got under way despite questions about the future of the industry in Japan.
"I don't know what will happen next but I hope we can continue whaling," said Inomata.
Tokyo called off the 2014-15 season for its Antarctic hunt, and said it would redesign the controversial whaling mission in a bid to make it more scientific.
But vessels would still go to the icy waters to carry out "non-lethal research", raising the possibility that harpoon ships would return the following year.
That would put Japan on a collision course with anti-whaling nations like Australia, which brought the case to the international court.
Japan has hunted whales under a loophole in a 1986 global moratorium that allowed it to conduct lethal research on the mammals, but has openly admitted that their meat made its way onto menus.
Tokyo has always maintained that it intended to prove the whale population was large enough to sustain commercial hunting.
The coastal whaling programme in places like Ayukawa is considered part of "research" whaling, but was not
targeted at the court battle in The Hague.
Like the US, Japan extensively hunted whales in the 19th century, when they were a source of fuel and food.
But the country's taste for whale meat has considerably diminished in recent decades as it has become richer and has been able to farm more of its protein.
On Tuesday, a new poll showed 60 percent of Japanese people support the country's whaling programme, but only 14 percent eat whale meat.
Although not difficult to find in Japan, whale meat is not a regular part of most people's diet.
However, powerful lobbying forces have ensured Tokyo continues to subsidise the hunt with taxpayers' money.