The fleet was led by mother ship Nisshin Maru, which features a basketball court-sized deck area for carving up the catch. Behind it at the dock was one of the hunting ships, with a harpoon gun mounted on its bow.
The ceremony had a carnival-like atmosphere: Women presented officials with bouquets of flowers, and crew members handed out cases of beer, cracking them open and downing them to a cheer of “Kampai!”
A brass band played a marching tune on the wharf, and wives and friends waved farewell to crew members as they sailed off. Fireworks boomed in the overcast sky. Schoolchildren waved little blue flags with whales printed on them.
Despite all the controversy, whaling in Japan is not what it used to be. While whale meat was a key source of protein right after World War II, most Japanese rarely eat it now except as a delicacy in expensive restaurants.
“This business is on the way out. No young people are getting into it anymore,” said Tadaaki Ito, 72, a whale-meat wholesaler who remembers the days when Japan took thousands of whales. “Mass production, mass sales — it’s impossible now.”
People in the crowd — most of them with husbands or friends going out to sea — dismissed all the criticism.
“I think it’s good to do research,” said a woman at the wharf who refused to give her name. “It’s just a political problem.”