TOKYO, June 28 (Xinhua) -- Japan maintained its view that its whaling activities in the Antarctic Ocean are purely scientific and in no way violate international laws regarding commercial whaling, upping the ante in an ongoing dispute with Australia.
Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Thursday that the "scientific research" whaling conducted by Japan was " legal," adding that the Japanese government was "confident" in its argument.
The government top spokesman's comments came one day after hearings began on the matter at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, following Australia filing a suit against Japan claiming the nation's slaughtering of hundreds of whales during its yearly hunting season contravenes international laws regarding commercial whaling.
Australia's stance, backed by New Zealand, is that Japan has for decades used its "scientific research" justification to dodge a 1946 international convention regulating the number of whales that could be hunted for commercial purposes, as well as a moratorium on commercial activity set by the International Whaling Commission in 1986, following a steep decline in the numbers of whales globally.
Canberra claims that Tokyo's continued use of its "research" excuse is a blatant masking of its commercial whaling activities, that, in addition to being a front for commercial whaling activity that sees more than 1,000 whales hunted per year, far more than the annual quota allowed for scientific research, flies in the face of globally-recognized laws and regulations.
Under the current memorandum, Japan hunts an annual quota of around 850 minke whales, but Australia is saying that the whales are not being used for research purposes, but rather to keep a fledgling whale meat industry alive here.
"We hope, of course, that this is the highest juridical level, that the judges will decide in favor of existing laws and treaties, meaning that it is not allowed to whale within the boundaries of the Antarctic whale sanctuary...that it is not allowed to kill whales that are on the list of the endangered species," Geert Vons, director of Sea Shepherd Netherlands', a conservation group which monitors whaling, was quoted by local media as saying at the hearing.
For Japan's part, it maintains that its whaling process is indispensable to gaining a deeper understanding of the mammals -- their reproductive rates, migration routes, feeding habits and so on, and its annual research program is within the boundaries of Article 8 of the 1946 International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. It also says selling the meat of the whales is also in line with the rules.
However, the head of Australia's legal team, Bill Campbell, said that Japan's whaling activities are blatantly illegal and do not fall under the banner of science, in any respect.
He said that 935 whales cannot be killed per year in the name of scientific research and added that due to advancements in research technologies, not even a single whale needs to be killed.
Geert Vons concurred stating, "Scientists agree that you study behavior or dietary patterns when the animals are alive. It's well known that this is about selling and eating the whale meat."
But a spokesman for the Japanese governmental team, Noriyuki Shikata, insisted there were more than 500,000 minke whales in the Antarctic region and that Japan's research program needs at least 815 minke whales per year for its studies and that these levels were sustainable and would not further endanger the mammals as the rates are substantially below the mammals' reproductive levels.
"We are abiding by the specific provision under the convention, which allows contracting governments to engage in research whaling for scientific purpose," Shikata was quoted as saying.
"Japan is conducting both non-lethal and lethal research program. Some of the data cannot be obtained by non-lethal means."
Japan's Deputy Foreign Minister Koji Tsuruoka added, "Australia 's claim is invalid and that Japan's research whaling has been conducted for scientific research in accordance with international law."
"Japan is proud of its tradition of living in harmony with nature, and utilizing living resources while respecting their sustainability," Tsuruoka was quoted as telling the court.
Earlier this month and in contrast to its "scientific research" pretexts, the Institute for Cetacean Research, Japan's top whaling body, launched a nationwide campaign promoting whale meat as a food "rich in nutritional value" that can help consumers "gain strength" and vitality.
Whale meat, which is often eaten raw here as "sashimi" and can be found in many sushi restaurants as well as dedicated whale-meat restaurants, according to the institute, is rich in balenine -- a substance believed to enhance energy and physical health.
The campaign was launched as some 5,000 tons of surplus frozen whale meat is trying to be shifted by the institution to revitalize the industry, and as part of their campaign they will distribute booklets containing recipes for consumers to follow. The industry said it will also sell the meat to the nation's defense forces as a means to improve their strength, according to local media report here.
Legal representatives for the two nations will present their cases before 16 judges at the United Nations' highest judicial body -- the case of which is similar in nature to an international civil suit.
Japan is the only country in the world that cites research as a reason for its whaling activities. Norway and Iceland, two other countries known for their commercial whaling activities, offer different reasons for their hunting and don't interfere with what Australia has designated a "whale sanctuary" in the Southern Ocean.
The hearings at the Hague will continue until July 16, but a final decision on whether Japan can continue its loosely veiled research whaling program is not expected until later in the year.
Established in 1945, the International Court of Justice is the United Nations' highest judicial body and settles disputes between nations.
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