When it comes to whaling, Japan digs in its heels, as do antiwhaling nations and conservation groups.

Since the International Whaling Commission imposed a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986, antiwhaling nations, including Australia and Britain, have condemned Japan for conducting commercial whaling disguised as what it calls scientific research.

The annual hunt in the Antarctic Ocean starts soon. Japanese whalers plan to hunt some 1,000 whales. The catch was to include 50 humpbacks, hunted for the first time since 1963, but Japan backed down from this plan Friday amid intense international outrage.

Following are some questions and answers about the whaling dispute and why it is a hot topic:

Why is Japan so persistent about whaling?

One big reason is that it evokes a sense of nationalism. Japan does not want to stop whaling simply because it is told to do so by Western countries, including those that encouraged Japanese to eat whale meat after the war, when other food sources were scarce, critics say.

Shortly after Japan was defeated in 1945, the Occupation forces gave the green light for Japan to start coastal whaling. The cheap, and then plentiful, whale meat became a key source of protein as the nation struggled to rebuild.

In recent years, however, conservation groups have repeatedly called Japanese whalers “barbarians” and “murderers,” prompting a sense of indignation.

However, except for whaling industry participants and bureaucrats involved in the IWC talks, whaling is not a big issue for ordinary Japanese. In a survey conducted by Greenpeace Japan last year, about 34 percent of 1,047 respondents said Japan should resume commercial whaling, while about 66 percent said they either oppose or don’t have an opinion on commercial whaling.

What is the official government stance on whaling?

The Fisheries Agency argues that whales are just another type of marine resource and should be treated like fish.

Many countries, including Japan and Britain, engaged in overwhaling in the 1960s, leading to a sharp decrease in stocks. But now some species have increased to the point that limited catches will not put them at risk of extinction, according to the agency.

After the IWC issued the moratorium on commercial whaling, due, according to some, to insufficient scientific data on the survivability of some species, Japan has engaged in both lethal and nonlethal research whaling.

The agency claims killing whales is necessary to gather comprehensive data, including age, reproductive information and eating habits, for future management of stocks.

Hideki Moronuki, a Fisheries Agency official in charge of whaling, also pointed out that whale meat is a part of Japan’s food culture that other countries should respect.

In the past few years, the agency came up with a new argument that whales, at the top of the marine food chain, consume up to 436 million tons of fish annually, dealing a heavy blow to Japan’s fisheries industry.

What do antiwhaling nations argue?

Antiwhalers call Japan’s lethal scientific research a sham because whale meat is sold commercially for human consumption, and feel Japan does not need to kill 1,000 whales a year just for research.

Even if the number of some species, including the minke, has increased, whales could again face extinction if commercial whaling is resumed, they say.

Whaling is also a highly emotional issue for some Westerners. Humpbacks, a popular whale-watching species especially in Australia, have unique patterns on their pectoral fins that enable individual whales to be recognized. In some cases, they are given names. Killing whales is thus seen as a moral crime as well as an environmental one.

Paul Watson, founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a radical conservation group, said in a recent edition of New Yorker magazine that whales are more intelligent than people, and their slaughter is tantamount to murder.

Is whale meat a popular daily dish for Japanese?

No. Before Japan gave up commercial whaling in 1987, whale meat was served in school lunches and in the home. But now it is considered by some a delicacy that few people eat. There have been reports, too, that whale meat has high levels of mercury.

The meat is not a popular consumer choice at present, and thus unsold quantities are stockpiled.

In the Greenpeace Japan survey, about 82 percent of the respondents said they have never eaten whale meat or haven’t eaten it in a long time.

What is the history behind whaling in Japan?

Historians say the tradition dates back about 5,000 years to the Jomon Period. Large whale bone fossils have been found in ruins in Hokkaido and Aomori, indicating people were eating the mammals at the time.

In the seventh century, Emperor Tenmu imposed a ban on eating and killing wild animals and birds because of his Buddhist faith. However, fish and whales, which were considered fish, were excluded from the ban, spreading the custom of eating whale meat.

Whale-killing technology became more advanced as weapons and ammunition developed in the 17th century. In the 18th century, Japan acquired Western-style ship technology and navigation, allowing for long-range hunts.

How much whale meat is processed in Japan annually?

In fiscal 2006, some 4,154 tons of whale meat was produced as a byproduct of the lethal research, down from 5,560 tons in fiscal 2005, according to the Fisheries Agency.

The figure dropped last year because a fire broke out aboard the Nisshin Maru, the mother ship of the whaling fleet, cutting the hunt short.

But the figure has steadily grown over the years as Japan gradually expanded its lethal research. When Japan began research whaling in 1987 after the IWC’s ban, only 1,140 tons of whale meat was processed.

In addition, about 400 tons of whale meat from small coastal whales, whose catch does not fall under the IWC’s jurisdiction, as well as 1,000 tons of dolphin meat are processed every year for consumption.

However, a report by freelance journalist Junko Sakuma in 2006 showed that whale meat inventories reached 4,800 tons in August 2005.

What are the latest developments concerning whaling?

On Nov. 18, Japanese research vessels left Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture, bound for Antarctic waters to hunt about 1,000 whales, including 50 humpbacks.

On Dec. 19, Australia announced it will send aircraft and a ship to monitor the whaling fleet and try to build a legal case against Japan in international courts, including the International Court of Justice.

As Australia and other countries and conservation groups heated up their outcry against Japan’s whaling program, Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura announced last Friday that Japan would not go after humpbacks while talks on reforming the IWC are under way.

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