The number of whale watchers around Japan more than doubled between 1998 and 2015, official information shows. Data for more recent years is not yet available. One company in Okinawa had 18,000 watchers between January and March of this year.
One of the most popular places for whale watching is Rausu, a fishing village on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido.
In Rausu, 33,451 people took part in boat tours last year for whale and bird watching. That is 2,000 more than in 2017 and more than 9,000 higher than in 2016. The visitors are good for the local economy.
Ikuyo Wakabayashi is head of tourism in the Rausu area. She told Reuters news agency the number of visitors keeps growing each year. "Of the tourist boat business, 65 percent is whale watching."
"You don't just see one type of whale here, you see lots of them," said Wakabayashi, who is a big fan of whales herself. She says whale watching is what led her to move to Rausu from her native city of Osaka.
Wakabayashi said she fell in love with the area after three trips to Rausu to see orcas. "I thought this was an incredible place," she said. "Winters are tough, but it's so beautiful."
Rausu is 160 kilometers north of the port city of Kushiro. That is where the first ships left from earlier this month to restart whale hunting. On the first day of the hunt, two minke whales were killed.
One whale-watching boat operator in Rausu, Masato Hasegawa, said his tours also search for minke whales. But the former fisherman said hunters do not go after some other kinds of whales his visitors recently saw, such as sperm whales and orcas.
Hasegawa said one of the best places in the area to see whales is protected from hunting. "They won't come into this area - it's a national park - or there'd be big trouble," he said.
But Hasegawa said if hunters take a lot of minke whales in the nearby Sea of Okhotsk, it would reduce sightings and hurt the business. Whale watching has become popular in other areas of Japan as well, including parts of the southern Okinawa islands.
Commercial whaling is a very small industry in Japan. It employs a few hundred people. Government data shows that whale makes up just 0.1 percent of meat eaten in the country.
Some experts say Japan's move might help some whales because it means that Japan will stop hunting whales in the Southern Ocean, the Atlantic Ocean and other sensitive areas.
Japan's Fisheries Agency has set a limit of 227 whale kills for this year. In the past, Japan caught as many as 1,200 whales a year in the name of scientific research.
I'm Bryan Lynn.