Five decades of Japanese whaling in Antarctic waters came to an end this month when a Japanese fleet there killed its 1,941st minke whale of the season and prepared to sail for home.
Crewmen on the vessels, a mother ship and four small chase craft, sounded horns and received a message of commendation from their commander after the harpooning of the whale, the last allowed under a quota.
The withdrawal from Antarctica puts Japan an important step closer to a total end of commercial whaling. That is to come one year from now, when Japan has promised to halt whaling close to its shores.
The country has moved grudgingly in the face of strong international pressure. It denies claims that the whales it hunts are in danger of extinction and says whaling is a valuable facet of Japanese culture that should be preserved.
Seen as Resource
"I know that others may have different views toward wild creatures, but in Japan we believe whales are a resource that should serve human beings," said Kinshiro Sorimachi, an official at the Japanese Whaling Assn.
Japanese whaling began more than four centuries ago. In the years after World War II, whale meat was an important source of protein in the Japanese diet and is still available in some restaurants here. The industry, however, is now a fraction of its former size, employing only about 3,000 people.
The Japanese news media gave the final expedition to Antarctica full end-of-an-era honors. Newspapers covered the departure of the fleet from Yokohama in October and put reporters on the vessels to witness the final hunt.
"Those who were engaged in cutting up the catch said with deep emotion that they may never take up the long cutter knives again," the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper reported.
In 1982, the International Whaling Commission called for a total end to whaling in 1985. Japan at first declined to comply. Threats from the United States to deny it fishing rights in its waters brought agreement from Japan to end whaling in 1988.