Five small boats from Japan's northern port of Kushiro on Monday with a simple goal: to find and kill minke whales.
By 5 pm they had their first catch, according to activists who followed them. The ships would continue to catch another, reported Kyodo News Agency. Japan's whalers hope to catch and kill hundreds of whales by the end of the year.
The hunt marked the official resumption of Japan's commercial whaling industry after 31 years – and with the new controversy over the country's insistence on whaling despite concerns about cruelty and conservation and against falling consumer demand for whale meat.
On Sunday, Japan officially left the International Whaling Commission (IWC), an international organization seeking to help preserve whales wildly that Japan had joined in 1951.
The IWC introduced a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1982. After many years of dispute, the government of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced in December that it intended to leave the organization and claimed that it did not fulfill its mandate to strike a balance between conservation of the puppy population and allow a sustainable whaling industry.
In previous years, Japanese whalers continued to kill whales in the Antarctic and southern hemisphere for scientific research. Although Japan said the exercise was designed to help determine whale quotas, so it still whale meat sold for food afterwards.
But with the official restart of commercial whaling, Japanese boats will now hunt in the country's territorial waters.
"Today, we are witnessing the first victim of Japan's new era of commercial whaling; with the sad, pounding bodies of a minke whale bought for land," said Juliet Phillips, a campaign with Environmental Research Agency following the hunt in Kushiro .
Japan's Fisheries Agency has said that the catch quota at the end of this year was set at 227 whales, a figure lower than the 333 that Japan hunted in Antarctica in recent years. The quota includes 52 minke whales and 150 breeding whales and 25 saithe whales.
] President of the Human Society International Kitty Block said the new quota only showed that Japan had entered a new era of "pirate whaling".
"It has revealed a decade of charade of harpoon whales under the shadow of science, it has revealed a terrible truth – that these gentle seagulls are slaughtered for no legitimate reason at all." Blok said.
Although Japan has promised to use IWC-approved methods to kill whales, Humane Society International said there are no humane ways of killing a whale and that as slow breeding cattle that lead long lives, whales are "extremely vulnerable" for overuse.
Japan's commercial whaling industry dates from the 19th century. It became a prominent force in the country after the Emperor's Japanese defeat in World War II, when whales gave cheap protein to a fast-growing country.
However, the demand for the meat had fallen just before the whaling ban was imposed with government data showing consumption from about 200,000 tons in the 1960s to about 5,000 tons in recent years.
Japan's research whaling program had constantly lost money and stood on state aid. Some commercial whalers are unsure whether there is a large enough market for whale meat for their industry to survive.
A whale leaving the port on Monday, 40-year-old Takashi Takeuchi, told reporters that he "felt uneasy" about the future.
The dead whales in Kushiro were met with local party feasts as well as in Shimonoseki in southwestern Japan, another whaling town also found in Abe constituency.
Shimonoseki had been a boom town in the top whaling towers, but has fought over the years since
The return of commercial whaling was a "milestone in Shimonoseki's history," Mayor Shintaro Maeda told reporters, according to Asahi Shimbun.
Simon Denyer in Tokyo contributed to this report.