|TOKYO - Scores of Japanese tucked into a feast of fried whale and whale kebabs on Tuesday, renewing Tokyo\'s calls to lift a ban on hunting the giant mammals as they said eating whale was a proud national tradition.|
\"Whale is nutritious but expensive, I wish it were cheaper,\" said Mitsuko Yamamoto, biting into a whale cutlet sandwich.
\"People overseas say whales are cute, but cows and pigs look cute to me too. It\'s a cultural difference.\"
Japan believes endangered whales should be protected but that others, such as the minke, are in no danger of dying out and hunting within limits should be allowed.
\"There are lots of whales. Why is whaling no good?\" Masayuki Komatsu, a senior Fisheries Agency official, told Reuters.
\"If you don\'t eat whale, your take of fish goes down, and you have to produce more beef, chicken and pork,\" he added. \"Environmentally, this is very unsound.\"
Japan\'s die-hard pro-whaling stance has left it increasingly at odds with world opinion, even within the International Whaling Commission (IWC), a group originally set up to manage whaling.
Tokyo was angered by last year\'s move to establish an IWC conservation commission and has said it might consider quitting.
Government pamphlets laud the health benefits of whale, citing its high protein levels - which made it a crucial food source for the country after its defeat in World War Two.
But with prices high and supplies low following Japan\'s adoption of a 1986 IWC moratorium on commercial whaling, it has become a pricey gourmet food. Japan still takes several hundred whales each year in what it calls scientific research whaling.
\"I really like whale bacon, and if there\'s any red meat available in the stores I\'ll buy it right away,\" said Mimi Nishitani, a 41-year-old store clerk.
\"I think it\'s fine to whale, just not irresponsibly.\" Japanese officials have repeatedly said they would prefer to work within the framework of the IWC, the only world body devoted specifically to whales, but that Tokyo\'s position has become more difficult as the organisation has swung towards conservation.
\"It\'s a bit unfair, because the nations that tell us not to whale don\'t it eat themselves,\" said retiree Hisao Koide.
Komatsu, at the Fisheries Agency, said Japan\'s decision on the group was likely by late June.
\"The possibility of quitting still remains,\" he said.
Story by Elaine Lies
REUTERS NEWS SERVICE