Japan may leave the International Whaling Commission if the organisation fails to allow limited hunting of whales for commercial purposes, officials said ahead of meetings of the group opening at the end of May.
TOKYO Japan may leave the International Whaling Commission if the organisation fails to allow limited hunting of whales for commercial purposes, officials said ahead of meetings of the group opening at the end of May.
The move could shatter the IWC, which was originally set up to manage whaling.
Environmental activists and Australia's government are already upset over reports that Japan will nearly double its take of minke whales and add two new species to its annual hunt, including the popular humpback.
For its part, Tokyo, which maintains whaling is a treasured cultural tradition, says it may have to consider leaving the IWC if a contentious set of rules that would allow limited commercial whaling is not approved at the group's meeting in South Korea.
Japan, where whale meat is now a delicacy, abandoned commercial whaling in 1986 in line with an international ban, but began its research whaling programme the next year. Much of the meat ends up on the tables of gourmet restaurants.
"A country with policies like Japan's can't wait around for 10 years, for 20 years," said Joji Morishita, a Fisheries Agency official and senior member of Japan's IWC delegation to the meeting in South Korea.
"It would mean the government hadn't done what it should and diplomatically, it would be a waste of time and money," he added.
"Something must be decided soon -- either this year or next."
Tokyo has said in the past that quitting the IWC is an option, but political pressure to do so soon is rising.
"It becomes more and more difficult ... to explain to the Japanese people why they should keep on staying in the IWC," said Yoshimasa Hayashi, a lawmaker in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party whose southern constituency is a whaling area.
"Why must our desire to eat whale be blocked?" Hayashi said. "To do so without scientific basis is prejudice."
Hayashi also warned that Japan might abandon the moratorium altogether.
"Depending on the result of the meeting, we might even start whaling along our coastline," he said.
Tokyo will submit its expanded whaling plans to the IWC's scientific committee in meetings starting on May 30. The full IWC plenary begins on June 20.
Australia, which has vowed to knock down the proposal, upped the ante on Tuesday when Prime Minister John Howard sent a letter to Japanese counterpart Junichiro Koizumi, urging a change in plans.
PLENTY OF HUMPBACKS
Humpbacks are a popular tourist attraction in Australia, which has declared a whale sanctuary within 200 nautical miles of its shore but cannot enforce this off its Antarctic territory.
"When they innocently depart that 200 (nautical) mile zone and head south for their annual feeding on the krill of the Antarctic ice shelfs, clearly the proposal by the Japanese Fishing authorities will put them at peril," Australian Environment Minister Ian Campbell told reporters.
Japan's ambassador to Australia countered on Thursday by saying Japanese are shocked that Australians eat kangaroos. More than six million of Australian's estimated 57 million wild kangaroos are harvested annually for their meat and hides.
"We cannot imagine kangaroos being eaten, no doubt to protect your farms or cattle or sheep," Hideaki Ueki told reporters.
Japan has long said endangered species should be protected but that others, like the minke, are numerous enough to hunt.
Fisheries officials say research whaling has shown that the numbers of humpback and fin whales, the other species it would add, are rapidly rising as well, requiring broader surveys.
"Humpbacks are increasing, even Australia acknowledges this," said Morishita, the Fisheries Agency official.
"Japan isn't stupid, we wouldn't take so many they'd disappear," he added. "As numbers go, there are plenty."
World attention at the meeting may be fixed on Japan's hunt plans, but officials said they are used to opposition and instead are closely watching what happens with the new whaling rules.
Should these be rejected, Japan might well leave the IWC -- which would require a vote by parliament -- and join hands with pro-whaling nations such as Norway and Iceland to form a new organisation, a move that could destroy the IWC.
Norway broke with the IWC in 1993 and is the only nation to permit commercial whaling. Its quotas this year are 796 minke, the highest level in two decades. Iceland last year caught 25.
"If we left the IWC, we couldn't just indiscriminately whale," Hayashi said. "We'd have to make a group and see how we could do it sustainably."
(Additional reporting by James Grubel in Canberra and Alister Doyle in Oslo.)