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This town with ties to whales that go back more than three centuries is staking its future on the giant mammals despite Japan’s forced halting of commercial whaling in 1988.

Masashi Urayama, a former fisherman who used to catch dolphins, is betting that whale watching, not hunting, is his and the town’s future. He captains the whale-watching ship Sueyoshi Maru, which takes tourists about 40 km out into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Taiji.

People who crowd the deck of the Sueyoshi Maru are treated to the sight of migrating pods of sperm whales and a cold-water bath from the high swells.

Schools of dolphins are also common in the area, leaping and frolicking around the ship.

While some fishermen still hunt dolphins, Urayama, 34, stopped doing so about nine years ago because, he said, “the catch quota was small.”

Now that he is in the tourism industry, Urayama is trying to strike a balance between his business and his former peers in the commercial whaling industry. He keeps in touch with the hunters to swap information on the location of dolphins and sperm whales.

Tourism is one of the few remaining industries in the town, which features a genuine whaling ship remodeled into a hall for whale reference materials. There are also some 10 fishing ships that have been converted to whale-watching vessels in the area.

Taiji’s history is strongly linked to whales and whaling, and in striving to find ways to stay active — even though commercial whaling is banned — its future, like its past, seems to depend on the giant mammals.

The town boasts a restaurant that serves whale meat, while the town office manages the Taiji Whale Museum, where visitors can see dolphins twice a day.

There are also indications of the efforts made by the town office to retain Taiji’s ties to whales, such as the images of the mammals that grace manhole covers in the town.

However, the town is facing an uphill battle to survive. One of its largest handicaps is its remote location — Taiji is three hours by express train from Osaka. The number of visitors to the whale museum has halved in the past 10 years.

“Ultimately, there is no way (for Taiji to survive) but (to seek) the resumption of commercial whaling,” said Iwao Isone, 74, who owns a small whaling ship.

The town is watching the International Whaling Commission’s debate on the matter with faint hope. The commission, which is scheduled to hold its general assembly in London in July, is also slated to meet in Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture, next year.

Locals figure there are no clues yet as to whether Japan, with its opposition to the ban on commercial whaling, can find a middle ground with antiwhaling nations.

The IWC passed a resolution last year saying that it would work expeditiously to ease the plight of whaling towns like Taiji, as well as Abashiri in Hokkaido and Oshika, Miyagi Prefecture. However, nations including the United States remain strongly opposed to resuming commercial whaling.

Masateru Seko, 24, returned to his home in Taiji last year after losing his job with a paper manufacturer in Shizuoka Prefecture due to restructuring. He joined a fleet of whaling ships, purportedly for scientific purposes, and left for the Antarctic in November.

He was the first young man from Taiji to join the whaling industry in 20 years. Retired whalers in the town were pleased to see the young man take part in whaling and encouraged him to “show others that a whaler from Taiji is different from those who come from other places.”

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