During the heyday of commercial whaling in the 1960s, the town of Taiji prospered as the cradle of whaling, supplying gunners to seven fleets of Japanese ships that headed south to the Antarctic to hunt the giant mammals.

Today, just 10 people in the town in the southeastern part of Wakayama Prefecture continue the tradition, seizing small coastal water whales that are excluded from the International Whaling Commission’s ban on commercial whaling.

Japanese have long been accustomed to whale meat, which was a major source of protein in the lean years after World War II.

Deep-fried whale meat was a staple listed on school lunch menus and was the basis of many popular dishes that appeared on tables in homes.

But since Japan ceased commercial whaling in April 1988, whale meat has become a delicacy, and what little available now is a high-grade food item found in specialty restaurants in Tokyo and elsewhere.

Taiji is widely known as the birthplace of coastal whaling, with a history dating back to 1606, when groups of people in the town began whaling with hand-held harpoons. Excavations have shown that whaling occurred even before that in Japan, possibly as early as 200 B.C.

Shimasaburo Hamai, 76, was a gunner on an oceangoing whaling ship from 1954 to 1976. He still lives in Taiji, where some 400 people — around one in 10 residents — were whalers in the 1960s when commercial whaling was at its height.

At that time, about 10,000 people from across the nation were making regular expeditions to the Antarctic aboard the seven whaling fleets.

“Those men in Taiji who knew whales were recruited by head hunters,” Hamai said.

Japan was catching more than 6,000 whales a year, and about 200,000 tons of whale meat flooded the domestic fish markets.

“Whales provided for 10 million Japanese or about 10 percent of the nation’s population in postwar years,” said Takeshi Saika, director of the Taiji Whale Museum.

Japan was forced to halt its commercial whaling in 1988, however, in the face of rising public opposition to whaling in the United States and other countries, driven by fears the creatures were on the verge of extinction.

The population of Taiji has fallen by 20 percent from what it was in the 1960s.

Excluding ships that catch whales for scientific study, there are only five ships in Japan still whaling. They capture about 180 small whales a year — the quota allotted to the nation as those exempt from the IWC ban — and a variety of dolphins.

Recalling the days when he was an active whale hunter, Hamai said: “A whaling ship would run at full speed to the deep Antarctic Ocean. The waters rose above the surface of the sea and a giant blue whale measuring more than 20 meters would leap out. We had only two seconds to harpoon and catch it.

“If we didn’t hit it right, the whale would swim away under sea pulling our 700-ton ship along behind with the rope tied to the harpoon.”

Hamai also said that the scenes of his boyhood — small ships returning to Taiji, lopsided under the weight of their catch, with the sun setting behind them — are still seared into his memory.

“They were really something to see,” he said.

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