Junichi Sato's face clenched when he recalled opening the reeking box of whale meat -- all 50 pounds of it.
"At first we thought it was someone's dismembered body," Sato said. "It was quite depressing."
He and fellow Greenpeace activist Toru Suzuki had tracked the package to a mail depot in northern Japan after tipsters told them it contained whale meat bound for the country's black market, smuggled by crew members of a ship commissioned to kill the mammals for scientific research, not profit.
But when they held a cameras-flashing news conference last spring to turn the meat over to police, the officers instead arrested the activists for trespass and theft.
That put them at the center of a bitter face-off between environmentalists and the Japanese government, which many believe wants to severely punish the pair as a warning to citizens who question the country's controversial whaling policy.
Japanese officials say the men -- dubbed the Tokyo Two -- are eco-terrorists who stole the meat from a legitimate transporter to falsely malign the nation's whaling establishment. The pair faced a pretrial hearing in their case this week; they could receive up to 10 years in jail if convicted.
"These men have been painted as heroes," said Joji Morishita, consulate for the Japanese government's powerful Fisheries Agency, which sponsors the whale hunts. "They're not heroes."
The case has shifted the front lines of the war over Japan's whaling program from the frigid waters off Antarctica, where 100 whales are culled by Japan each winter, to the streets of Tokyo and the court of public opinion.
It also is a rare occurrence of Japanese taking the lead in protesting their government's environmental policies. In a culture where demonstrations are rare and a premium is put on polite public discourse, Sato and Suzuki's actions have raised eyebrows.
"Usually it's Australians, Americans or British taking action, not the Japanese themselves," said Keiko Hirata, a political scientist at Cal State Northridge who specializes in Japanese foreign policy.
Along with putting Japan's whaling practices on trial, experts say, the case calls into question the tactics of activist groups such as Greenpeace, which are often viewed here as meddling outsiders.
Although commercial whaling was banned in 1986, Japan is permitted to kill the animals for "lethal research" on their migratory and other habits in anticipation of a return to sustainable commercial hunts. Norway and Iceland also cull a limited number of whales each year.
Environmentalists routinely harass Japanese whaling boats during the hunt for the nation's disputed annual harvest of 935 minke and 50 fin whales. The group Sea Shepherd has been accused of tactics such as firing acid, mud, nails and water cannons at the vessels.
After the arrest of the two activists, Greenpeace supporters sent 250,000 letters to Japanese prosecutors and a delegation handed a letter of protest to the office of Prime Minister Taro Aso.
"This has become a very political case," Suzuki said. "The government wants to destroy Greenpeace."
Morishita responded icily to Greenpeace assertions that the men have not been treated fairly. "If they don't trust our police," he said, "there is no basis for further discussion."
Japan has hunted whales for centuries, and officials say the culls are a part of the national identity. But consumption of the meat, once a staple of the country's diet, is now restricted to a few upscale restaurants and coastal whaling villages.
The whaling issue has strained relations between Japan and allies such as New Zealand and Australia, which have publicly expressed displeasure with the annual hunt. Britain has hinted that it might take the matter to the United Nations.
Japanese officials say they are the target of emotional propaganda.
"Critics say the whale is a special animal to be protected. We'd like to treat it exactly like any other wildlife hunted worldwide, such as deer or kangaroos," Morishita said.
"What would the Americans say if India suddenly said they should stop eating beef because the cow is special to their culture?" he asked. "That is what is happening to us."
Polls show that 56% of Japanese approve of eating whale meat. More men than women support the practice, which is also more strongly backed by people older than 40.
"Much of this support isn't because people are pro-whaling or are willing to eat whale meat," said Atsushi Ishii, a professor at Japan's Tohoku University who specializes in the nation's environmental policies. "People are against the anti-whalers. They don't like being told what to do by the outside groups."
Sato, a 32-year-old former English teacher, said he was unaware of the international protest against Japan's whaling until he joined Greenpeace a few years ago.
"The more I read about the issue, the more I realized that what the Japanese government is telling the public is a lie," he said. "I wanted to make this a Japanese issue."