By Elaine Lies
TOKYO (Reuters) - Court hearings began to stop dolphin hunting in a Japanese village on Friday, with plaintiffs saying the grisly annual hunts, made famous in an Oscar-winning documentary, violate animal protection laws due to their "extreme cruelty".
The western Japanese town of Taiji, long known for the hunts involving driving hundreds of dolphins into a cove and clubbing them to death, became notorious after the 2009 documentary "The Cove", sparking global protests.
In the first legal action of its kind, launched by animal welfare charity Action for Dolpins and joined by two plaintiffs - marine activist Ren Yabuki and a man who grew up in Taiji but wants to remain anonymous due to fears of harassment - argue that dolphins are protected under Japanese animal welfare laws but are subjected to "extreme acts of cruelty" in the hunt.
The dolphins are no longer clubbed to death, but a metal rod is stabbed into the back of their neck and they bleed and suffocate.
"We also allege that the fishermen violate the legal conditions of their hunting permit because they catch more dolphins than is allowed," the plaintiffs said in a summary of their legal action, filed in February.
They demanded that the court declare permits for the hunts, issued by the governor of the prefecture where Taiji is located, invalid.
A Taiji official said she was not able to comment, but the town has long maintained the hunt is a traditional part of their livelihood in an area that has hunted dolphins and whales for thousands of years.
Japan, which for decades conducted what it called scientific research whaling as a member of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), announced in December that it would withdraw from the organisation and resume commercial whaling.
Japan's first commercial whaling, set to be carried out within its exclusive economic zone, will start in July and is expected to include a vessel based in Taiji.
Japan has long said that eating whale is a cherished cultural tradition, and whale was key in feeding the impoverished nation following its defeat in World War Two. But consumption has dropped in recent years amid an abundance of other protein sources.
(Reporting by Elaine Lies; Editing by Nick Macfie)