TOKYO (AFP) - A Japanese whaling fleet is set to leave port on Saturday in the first hunt since the UN's top court last month ordered Tokyo to stop killing whales in the Antarctic.
The departure of ships from Ayukawa in the country's north-east marks the annual 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 scientific research.
But Tokyo's decision to continue whaling was likely to anger environmentalists who had hoped the ruling would bring an end to a slaughter that Japan has embraced as part of its cultural heritage.
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, arguing that Tokyo's research was aimed at skirting a ban on commercial whaling.
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 was intending to prove the whale population was large enough to sustain commercial hunting.
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.
Like the United States, 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 per cent of Japanese people support the country's whaling programme, but only 14 per cent eat whale meat. Although not difficult to find in Japan, whale meat is not a regular part of most Japanese people's diet.
However, powerful lobbying forces have ensured Tokyo continues to subsidise the hunt with taxpayers' money.
Meanwhile, public support has been mobilised in reaction to what some paint as cultural imperialism by Western environmentalists, particularly the aggressive actions of groups like Sea Shepherd.