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Japan's PM Shinzo Abe suggests return to Antarctic whaling during 'whale week'

By Hilary Whiteman, CNN
June 11, 2014 -- Updated 1234 GMT (2034 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Japan's Prime Minster says he'll push for resumption of whaling
  • International court ordered Japan to stop earlier this year
  • Critics say Japan's whale research program is a cover for commercial whaling
  • Japan says it sells the meat to pay for necessary research expeditions

(CNN) -- Just months after being told the country's whaling expeditions in Antarctica must stop, Japan's Prime Minister has riled activists by suggesting he will push for their resumption.

On Monday, Shinzo Abe told a parliamentary committee he would like Japan to resume commercial whaling "in order to obtain scientific information indispensable to the management of the whale resources."

Japan suspended its southern hunt after a long-awaited ruling from the International Court of Justice in March found that its justification for the hunt lacked scientific rigor.

Australia led the legal challenge against Japan's justification of whaling in the ICJ, claiming the country was using scientific research as a cover for commercial whaling.

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Japan has long argued that its research programs are necessary to help manage and conserve whale populations, accusing anti-whaling activists of trying to discredit its activities.

While it halted its program in Antarctica, the country is still hunting whales on a smaller scale in the northwest Pacific.

Comments 'worrying'

New Zealand backed the Australian legal challenge, and on Tuesday the country's foreign minister, Murray McCully, described Abe's comments as "worrying."

"While it is not clear precisely what Prime Minister Abe is proposing in the short term, the fact that he has told a Parliamentary Committee that he wants to aim towards the resumption of commercial whaling is both unfortunate and unhelpful," McCully said in a statement.

Anti-whaling activist Jeff Hansen, director of Sea Shepherd Australia, told CNN Abe's comments were "not surprising, but definitely disappointing."

"The International Court of Justice ruling gave Japan a way to save face without handing a victory to Sea Shepherd, and when you see more and more people within Japan against whaling, it's a shame that Japan's taking this route," Hansen said.

Hansen said his organization had three ships ready to dispatch to the region, should Japan resume whaling in the Antarctic.

An attack on Japan?

At a press conference Tuesday, the Japanese commissioner to the International Whaling Commission Joji Morishita said the country was eager to find a solution that would allow it to satisfy the demands of the ICJ while continuing the hunt.

"If whaling activities involve over-exploitation or non-controlled activities, it is expected that Japan will be blamed like any other fisheries or any other resource utilization activities. But what we'd like to achieve is sustainable whaling," he said.

"Often, it is described [that] Japan is aggressively seeking commercial whaling ... but for many, the general public at least, [the] whaling dispute is also seen as an attack to Japan from outside," Morishita added.

According to the Japan Whaling Association, information on "population, age structure, growth rates, age of maturity, reproductive rates, feeding, nutrition and levels of contaminants ... can not be obtained through small DNA samples or analysis of organochlorine, but only through lethal research."

Japan also conducts non-lethal research, but images of its whalers harpooning minke whales has led to the condemnation of its program as unnecessary and cruel.

Abe told the parliamentary committee Japan demonstrated its respect for whales killed by holding a "religious service" for the culled mammals.

"It is a pity that that part of Japanese culture is not understood by the international community," he said.

Japan claims that eating whale is one of its traditions, however consumption rates are falling, leading to large stockpiles of whale meat.

Japan holds 'whale week'

This week, Japan's agriculture, forestry and fisheries department is trying to reacquaint Japanese people with the delicacy by giving away free samples of fried whale meat to visitors to the ministry.

Earlier this week, a photo of agriculture minister Yoshimasa Hayashi tucking into a bowl of whale meat was released to encourage his countrymen to do the same.

Hayashi told the parliamentary committee: "Whaling and whale meat cuisine is an important Japanese culture. I would like to proactively provide information about it to the public widely and deepen the understanding for the whaling."

According to a survey released by Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun in April, 37% of people -- including roughly half of respondents in their 20s and 30s -- said they did not eat whale meat; 4% of respondents said they occasionally eat whale meat, 10% said they ate it on "rare occasions," while 48% said they'd eaten it in once in the past, but had not eaten it recently.

Japan officials defend dolphin hunting at Taiji Cove

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