TOKYO – When the International Whaling Commission convenes its annual meeting in Italy next week, Japan will make a familiar -- and perhaps final -- plea.
Delegation officials say Japan, the world's prime consumer of whale meat, will once again call for an end to the commission's 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling.
But this year, Japan has attached a warning it may quit the commission if it doesn't get results.
"We may have to consider pulling out, but we will have to see how the meeting goes," said Akira Nakamae, an alternate member of the Japanese delegation to the meeting that starts Monday in Sorrento, Italy. "We see that as a last resort, however."
Tokyo has never publicly said whether it would resume commercial whaling if it withdraws from the commission, but nothing would stop it from doing so. The ban isn't legally binding, and Japan would not be alone. Norway rejected the ban and resumed commercial whaling in 1993.
Japan, however, has been reluctant to pull out because of the likely political backlash from other members, including its key ally, the United States.
Nakamae said there is a "growing understanding" around the world of the importance of using ocean resources, including whales. Japan now sees other IWC members as split fairly evenly between the pro- and anti-whaling camps, he said.
But with a three-fourths majority required to lift the ban, the delegation is not optimistic.
"We will make the proposal, as we do every year, but I think it would be very difficult" to win a vote overturning the ban, he said in an interview before flying to Italy on Friday.
If little progress is made, the government will be under intense pressure from a powerful political lobby to quit the International Whaling Commission altogether. Though the issue isn't foremost on the minds of many voters, whaling advocates enjoy the support of a conservative -- and vocal -- bloc within Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's ruling party.
Japan made a similar threat at last year's combative meeting in Berlin, when Tokyo saw two of its requests for kills denied, and fought in vain to block the creation of a conservation committee.
There is clearly a deep philosophical divide within the IWC.
Japanese officials argue that the commission has strayed from its mission of supervising -- not dismantling -- the whaling industry. Based largely on Japanese research, the IWC's own scientific committee has acknowledged that, with about 760,000 minke whales in the Antarctic, an annual take of 2,000 could continue for the next 100 years without hurting overall stocks.
But the United States and other members have taken the position that killing whales should be discouraged. Whaling opponents have also focused on the difficulty of enforcing catch quotas.
Then there is the question of Japan's scientific whaling program. Japan, as well as Iceland, hunts whales for research.
But Japan's program has been singled out by environmental groups and some IWC member nations, who see it as commercial whaling in disguise.
Nakamae stressed the commission relies on the program for much of its scientific data. IWC regulations also provide for the selling of byproducts of the research hunts. The research program supplied about 3,000 tons of whale meat for the market last year, bringing in $52 million.
"That is just a tiny fraction of the size of the market before the ban took effect," Nakamae said.
Still, officials acknowledge the ban hasn't completely kept Japan from putting blubber on the table.
Though expensive, canned whale meat is easily found in supermarkets and department stores. Restaurants specializing in whale cuisine can be found in most big cities.
As next week's meeting begins, a Japanese research whaling fleet will be plying the northwestern Pacific in a hunt expected to bring back the meat and byproducts of 100 minke whales, 50 Bryde's whales, 50 sei whales and 10 sperm whales. Earlier this year, the fleet returned from the Antarctic, where it killed about 400 minke whales.
Coastal whalers kill dozens more small whales from species which are not protected under the IWC ban.
This week, the whaling town of Wada, just south of Tokyo, celebrated its first catch of the season by sharing the blubber among its denizens. All 40 fifth-graders attending school in the town gathered to take notes on the whale being flayed.
"We want them to see it, to get a feel for our traditions," said town official Hiroshi Komiyama. "We cooked some up and they all got a taste afterward, too."