Poll: Two-Thirds of Japanese Favor Whale Hunts; 56 Percent Back Eating Whale Meat

Nearly two-thirds of Japanese support the country's much-criticized whaling program, a poll showed Friday, reflecting growing sentiment in the country that the international anti-whaling campaign is fueled by Western cultural bias.

The Asahi newspaper said 65 percent of respondents to a telephone survey favored the hunts, while 21 percent said they were opposed. Three-quarters of the men surveyed supported whaling, versus 56 percent of the women, it said.

The poll also said 56 percent of the 2,082 people surveyed supported using whales for food, versus 26 percent who did not. The poll, conducted Feb. 2-3, did not offer a margin of error.

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Japan kills more than 1,000 whales each year under a scientific research program allowed by the International Whaling Commission, despite a 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling of many species. The meat is sold at market.

Japan staunchly defends the hunts as crucial for research purposes and as part of its food culture, though few Japanese eat whale regularly because the moratorium has limited supplies and other meats such as beef have gained in popularity.

The world's increasingly active anti-whaling movement, however, backed by Australia and other nations, dismisses the research as a cover for commercial whaling. Activists regularly harass the Japanese whaling fleet.

Animal rights movements in general have gained little support in Japan, where many see the anti-whaling campaign as an attempt by Westerners to impose their cultural values on the Japanese.

Japanese Agriculture Minister Masatoshi Wakabayashi expressed "regret" Friday over Australia's release of images of Japanese hunters hauling a bleeding whale and a calf aboard a ship near Antarctica.

"It appears there were some comments that were not cool-headed. We plan to express our regret and urge Australia to respond calmly," he said.

Australian Environment Minister Peter Garrett on Thursday called the hunt "indiscriminate killing," and termed the Japanese scientific program a "charade."

Japanese have engaged in organized whaling for food along the country's coasts since the 1600s, and U.S. occupation forces encouraged Japanese hunts on the high seas after World War II as a source of much-needed protein.

Japanese officials often point out that it was the major whaling fleets of the United States and Europe that decimated world whale populations, and that they only turned against whaling when it was no longer economically profitable.