While Wellington and Tokyo must agree to disagree over Japan’s whaling program, the issue should not impede trade ties, visiting New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark said Thursday.

“It’s a difference of opinion,” she said in an interview in Tokyo with The Japan Times and other news organizations, adding that “on the vast majority of things, New Zealand and Japan agree.” Clark is in Japan on a six-day visit primarily aimed at promoting bilateral business and trade. About 13.5 percent of New Zealand’s exports go to Japan, making it New Zealand’s third-largest trading partner.

Her center-left government has been one of the harshest critics of Tokyo’s whaling policy. Because the catches usually end up in the stomachs of Japanese, Clark has accused Japan of disguising commercial whaling behind a scientific veil.

But just a day after Japan announced it wants to resume commercial whaling in Antarctic waters, Clark emphasized that she did not want the issue of whaling to overshadow elements such as trade in her meeting with Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori today.

“We’ll be wanting to discuss our whole relationship, which is very positive,” she said.

“Of course, New Zealand has a strong position on whaling sanctuaries and the conservation of whales. And we will register our opinion again and make it clear that we will continue to promote whale sanctuaries. But we don’t intend to let that dominate the meeting.”

New Zealand has strongly advocated making the South Pacific a whale sanctuary.

On U.S. President George W. Bush’s recent withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas emissions, Clark said that New Zealand — like Japan — is very disappointed with the move.

She added there may be a role for her nation — which speaks prominently on environmental issues despite its small size — in getting the United States to the discussion table.

“It’s fair to say that the Americans represent a position here; the European Union represents a position there. New Zealand is somewhere in-between. So, perhaps we can play a useful role in encouraging the United States to come back into discussions,” she said.

Clark also commented on Japanese tourism to New Zealand, which tailed off during the Asian economic crisis in 1997.

Tourism is New Zealand’s biggest foreign exchange earner. Although there has been a slight increase in the number of Japanese tourists in recent times, she said that the key to attracting more Japanese is linked to New Zealand’s profile here.

“There must be a lot of positive word of mouth, I think, to encourage more Japanese tourists to come to New Zealand. But hopefully the fact that the New Zealand prime minister is here reminds people of New Zealand again.”

The first trip that Clark made overseas was 26 years ago as a member of a goodwill exchange to Japan. This is her first visit to Japan as prime minister.

Clark is due to visit Fukuoka, Hiroshima and Osaka over the weekend, before flying on to Hong Kong on Monday evening.

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