Japan has delayed the start of its next "research" whaling mission by a few days, an official said Thursday, amid media speculation the postponement was to avoid a clash with a visit by US President Barack Obama.
A ruling late last month that Tokyo's Antarctic hunt breached international rules that ban commercial whaling sparked celebrations among environmentalists around the world, with some heralding an end to the slaughter.
But the declaration by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) does not apply to Japan's other whaling programmes -- a hunt it carries out in the northwest Pacific in the name of science and a smaller coastal programme.
The fleet for the Pacific hunt was originally scheduled to sail next Tuesday, the day before Obama is due to arrive for a three-day state visit at the start of an Asian tour.
The mass-selling Yomiuri Shimbun said the delay appeared to be an effort to avoid overshadowing the visit with an activity widely denigrated in the West.
An official from the fisheries agency confirmed to AFP that the departure had been delayed, but insisted it was nothing to do with the high-profile visit.
"We have received a report from local fishermen that they have postponed the departure from April 22 to 26 because they need more time to gather crew members," he said.
"Since the government has not yet made a clear decision on the Pacific whaling research programme in the wake of the (UN) verdict (on the Southern Ocean programme), they could not decide exactly when to sail," he said. "But the decision on when to depart is one that is taken by the crew."
The hunt in the northwestern Pacific operates two excursions a year, in coastal waters and offshore, from early summer through autumn.
The United States is a major voice in the International Whaling Commission (IWC) against hunting, which Japan has carried out using a loophole that allows for "lethal research" on the mammals.
It never made a secret of the fact that the whale meat from these hunts often ends up on dining tables.
Australia, backed by New Zealand, hauled Japan before The Hague-based ICJ in 2010 in a bid to end the annual Southern Ocean hunt.
Japan had argued that its JARPA II research programme was aimed at studying the viability of whale hunting, but the ICJ found it had failed to examine ways of doing the research without killing whales, or at least while killing fewer of them.
Tokyo this month said it was calling off the 2014-15 hunt in the Southern Ocean, but insisted it had made no decision on whether to resume its Antarctic whaling later, perhaps with a redesigned research programme.