The whaling season opened with a public carve-up and barbecue in the coastal town of Minamiboso, Chiba Prefecture, where workers last Thursday sliced a whale before a crowd of elementary school students and residents. Onlookers later received pieces of fried whale meat.

The annual event took place in the district of Wada, which lies at the southern end of the Boso Peninsula, a week into the first coastal whaling season since the International Court of Justice halted the country’s better known Antarctic whaling program in March.

Though environmentalists condemn whaling, Japan maintains it is an important part of its food heritage. Wada is proud of its centuries-old traditions and takes pains to teach such local culture and history to its children.

Thirty-eight students from the town’s elementary school murmured and gasped as workers used ropes and a pulley to drag the whale, killed the previous night, up a 9-meter-long concrete ramp.

“This part is the fat. If you’re scared, close your eyes,” said Yoshinori Shoji, president of the Gaibo Hogei whaling company, as one of the workers sliced off the whale’s skin and fat, exposing the dark meat and entrails.

“They’re so skilful,” some students said. But others gasped, “Stop! It’s so pitiable!”

Whale is a rarity on most Japanese dinner tables, but Wada residents regularly eat it at home and in school lunches.

“It’s so good,” said Taishi Makino, 10.

In Wada, souvenir shops, restaurants, supermarkets and whale specialty stores line the streets, selling whale meat products and dishing up everything from whale sushi to fried whale.

“Here in Wada we eat whales. Every family eats whale at least once during the summer whaling season,” said Michiyo Masuda, the students’ teacher. “If we are eating whales, we have the responsibility to see and learn how they’re prepared.”

At her school, fifth-graders study the biology of whales, the history of whaling and how to cook the meat.

“For us, whale is food. Whaling is a good tradition, and I want to pass on the trade before I die,” said Shoji, whose firm processes and sells whale meat.

He lectures on whaling every year at local schools, and hands out samples of preserved whale fin.

Japan’s international whaling program suffered a blow when the world court in March ordered a halt to its scientific whaling program in the Antarctic.

The surprise move prompted the government to cancel whaling in the Southern Ocean for 2014-2015.

Japan has long maintained that many whale species are not endangered. It began what it calls scientific whaling in 1987, a year after an international moratorium took effect. Coastal whaling is exempt from the moratorium.

The government intends to continue scientific whaling despite the court ruling, saying Japan simply needs to devise a new research plan in line with the finding, as it does not cover coastal whaling or whaling outside the Antarctic.

“The ruling doesn’t say anything about any kind of whaling except scientific research. Other types of whaling are allowed,” said Shoji.

The company plans to catch 30 Baird’s beaked whales, which is sometimes also called the bottlenosed whale, after its prominent beak, before whaling season ends in late August.

“It’s our right to take and eat whale within our waters,” Shoji added.

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