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In the face of international outrage, Japan is defending its tradition of whale hunting by championing cultural heritage and food resource diversity.

But with commercial whaling virtually banned and what little hunting activity there is coming under fire, the quest to keep alive its whaling culture could require a leviathan effort.

Several fishing villages serve as bases for coastal hunting of species of smaller whales that are not protected by the International Whaling Commission’s regulations.

The village of Taiji in Wakayama Prefecture bills itself as the birthplace of the traditional Japanese style of whale hunting.

“We make use of the entire whale body,” said Miyato Sugimori, a senior official in a local fishermen association, explaining what is seen as a unique feature of Japan’s whaling culture. “We do not just extract oil and discard the carcass.”

In Taiji, there is a whale museum, and the gate of the Shinto shrine is made of whale bone. There is also a monument to console the souls of dead whales, and a memorial service is held every April.

Traditional whale hunting by Western countries such as the United States and Britain was intended mainly to extract whale oil, which was used to light oil lamps and make soap. In Japan, whale meat, skin and entrails are consumed as food, while whale teeth are used in craft work.

Taiji became a focus of international outrage in 2010, when “The Cove,” a U.S. documentary that chronicled dolphin hunting by the village’s fishermen, won an Academy Award.

The hunting season begins in September and continues into the following spring. A convoy of fishing boats drive herds of dolphins and pilot whales, a species not covered by the IWC’s commercial whaling moratorium, into an inlet where fishermen catch and kill them.

Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a U.S.-based antiwhaling group, has also set its sights on Taiji’s dolphin hunting. Sea Shepherd activists filmed hunting activity and published video on the Internet, calling for protests over the hunts and taking in donations for their cause.

The firestorm of outrage touched off by the negative media exposure has prompted Taiji fishermen to take steps to prevent the process of slaughter from being seen by the prying eyes of outsiders.

Previously, it was not difficult for outsiders to see a blood-red sea in the aftermath of the hunt. Now, tarps are put up to obstruct the view of the inlet area where the slaughter is carried out.

Since 2011, a temporary police box has been set up near the coast during the hunting season to watch for activists. As a result, skirmishes between activists and fishermen have decreased, but an air of tension still hovers in the town.

On the starting day of the hunting season last fall, around 50 foreign activists staged a protest rally in Taiji.

Until the 1970s, eating whale meat was not an unusual practice in Japan, with dishes like fried whale a fixture on school lunch menus.

Now, whale meat is prized as a rarity, although stocks of whale meat are said to remain unsold perhaps because of the high price.

In addition to coastal whaling, Japan catches a limited number of whales in the Antarctic Ocean under IWC-sanctioned research whaling, which is permitted for checking whale populations and other purposes aimed at conservation efforts.

In recent years, the research whaling activity has been a favorite target of attacks, both physical and verbal, by Sea Shepherd. The chase game between the Japanese whaling fleet and Sea Shepherd boats seeking to obstruct the hunt in the Antarctic Ocean has become an annual ritual.

Greenpeace is also urging Japan to abandon whale hunting, asserting that controlled hunting is difficult to enforce. The line of attack undermines the notion of sustainable whaling, which could be a key to lifting of the commercial whaling moratorium.

Japan’s official line on whaling is that whale catches provide “valuable food resources” that “should be utilized in a sustainable manner based on best scientific evidence,” as explained by the Fisheries Agency on its website.

Nobuyuki Yagi, an associate professor at the University of Tokyo, also supports controlled hunting as long as endangered species of whales remain off-limits. “It would be better to keep diverse food resources available,” he said.

Although Japan has sought to have the whaling moratorium lifted, the IWC has been bogged down in paralysis amid the continuing tug of war between prowhaling members such as Japan, Norway and South Korea, and opponents like the United States and Australia.

Whale hunting in the Antarctic Ocean has drawn criticism within Japan, too, as a costly activity that wastes taxpayers’ money or as a cause of international ill feelings.

In an attempt to seek acceptance of their hunting culture, Taiji fishermen once reached out to antiwhaling activists and held a dialogue meeting, but the two sides failed to see eye to eye.

“Antiwhaling activity has become a money-collecting business,” Sugimori asserted. “Whatever we may say, we can’t expect understanding.”

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