TOKYO (AP) – As diners sit down to lunches of whale meat in Tokyo and elsewhere across the nation, Japan’s whaling fleet is on its annual hunt in the Antarctic, drawing protests from environmental groups, international governments and whale-lovers worldwide. So why does Tokyo persist?

Why shouldn’t it, many Japanese say.

“Why do people say we can’t eat the things we’ve eaten since the end of World War II?” asked Koji Shingu, the proprietor of a whale eatery called Yushin in Tokyo, a few blocks from the city’s oldest temple, a popular tourist draw.

His feelings echo those of many older Japanese.

The country has hunted whales for hundreds of years, and the meat is a sentimental favorite of people who lived through the lean postwar years, when whale was the chief source of protein because Japan couldn’t afford pork or beef. Whale was a common family dish, and many schoolchildren ate it every day.

Whale meat is still easily found in restaurants and canned in supermarkets, but is not a part of a typical home-cooked meal.

Shingu says most of his customers are in their 40s or older, while younger diners come mainly for the novelty. At the tail end of lunch hour, his clients included several older men eating alone and a pair of younger girls at a corner table.

The calm in the restaurant belied the battle it took to bring in the whale meat it serves.

The Japanese fleet, now somewhere between New Zealand and Chile, catches mostly minke whales, which at about 25 feet (7.6 meters) long and 5 tons are smaller than many other species.

It’s dangerous work – the current expedition has lost a crew member, who fell overboard and is presumed dead.

The task is made more difficult by environmentalists who relentlessly pursue the hunters.

This year the conservationist group Sea Shepherd has chased Japan’s whaling ships for thousands of miles and thrown bottles of rancid butter to disrupt operations. In late December the group’s ship and a whaling boat collided at sea.

Commercial whaling is banned internationally, but the six-vessel Japanese fleet operates under permission from the International Whaling Commission, which allows hunting for research purposes. Japan plans to take up to 935 minke whales and 50 fin whales this year, and says it sells most of the meat for food only after conducting its research.

Minke whales are not endangered, and few dispute that there are hundreds of thousands in the wild. But many feel that Tokyo’s research operation is thinly veiled commercial hunting, and that harpooning whales at sea is a brutal way to kill them.

“We deal with a ruthless and cruel enemy whose very reason for being here is to inflict agonizing suffering and to deliver cruel death to gentle, sensitive, intelligent and socially complex sentient beings,” the founder of Sea Shepherd and captain of its ship, Paul Watson, wrote from the Antarctic last week after clashing with whalers.

Makoto Ito, the managing director of Kyodo Senpaku, the company that runs Japan’s whaling fleet, says invoking images of whales being killed at sea is unfair because killing animals for food is never a pretty sight.

“There are intense scenes of cows and chickens being slaughtered too,” he said.

Ito says the scientific whaling done by his company, in connection with the government-backed Cetacean Research Institute, is needed to prove there are enough minke whales for harvesting, and thus for the lifting of the commercial whaling ban.

He said the entire operation costs $65 million to $76 million per year, of which the government provides about $5.5 million. The rest comes from selling the whale meat, and the entire operation is “barely making a profit.”

But international allegations that it is commercial whaling in disguise abound, and Japan has been strongly criticized by a number of nations, including Australia and New Zealand, as well as the United States.

This week, Tokyo said Sea Shepherd’s activities are tantamount to terrorism and said it planned to ask Australia to bar the group’s anti-whaling ship from its ports.

Australia, which has been a leading opponent of whaling, said it wouldn’t do so.

Sea Shepherd’s aggressive save-the-whales campaign has resonated with Western audiences and is the subject of a popular series on the Animal Planet TV network, “Whale Wars,” filmed from its ship.

Images of foreigners interfering with what is seen as a traditional fishing tradition have helped stir up pro-whaling sentiment in Japan. Still, younger generations are increasingly fond of red meat and other Western food, and without a publicity boost, whaling may fade away on its own.

That, Ito said, would be a shame.

“If there are plentiful resources, and we can take some without causing whales to go extinct for future generations, what is wrong with that?” Ito asked.

AP-ES-01-10-09 0729EST

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