TOKYO - The fate of the 21-year-old moratorium on commercial whaling is a numbers' game played at the annual International Whaling Commission meeting - and this year Japan is still short of votes in its drive to overturn the ban.
But anti-whaling forces say that with the recent addition of several pro-moratorium members, Tokyo's influence in the 75-member group is slipping and remains far from having the three-fourth's majority needed to scrap the ban at the IWC meeting next week in Anchorage.
Tokyo, which has fought for years to undo the 1986 moratorium, sent shivers through anti-whaling ranks last year when it rallied a one-vote majority at the IWC for a symbolic resolution saying the ban was no longer needed.
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One focus of the meeting in Anchorage was expected to be a Japanese drive to win coastal whaling recognition under provisions similar to those that allow certain indigenous groups - such as those in Alaska - to hunt the mammals.
Activists say Tokyo may try to win concessions for so-called "community whaling" or other issues in return for support to renew a five-year bowhead whale quota for indigenous hunters in Russia and the United States.
The IWC meeting follows a tumultuous year in Japanese whaling.
Arguing the IWC was politicized and becoming irrelevant, Tokyo hosted an alternative whaling meeting in February, which was boycotted by anti-whaling countries.
The meeting ended with a statement accusing whaling opponents of "imperialism" for imposing the moratorium and a threat to quit the IWC unless it is reformed.
Then Japan's annual whale hunt off Antarctica was cut short by a ship fire that killed one crew member - the first time in 20 years that Japan had to abort its hunt.
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"It's 100 percent sure, the moratorium is safe," said Junichi Sato, the oceans project manager for anti-whaling environmentalist group Greenpeace Japan.
Even Japanese officials concede they don't have the numbers to make a serious assault on the moratorium, though they say their arguments - that the IWC should be managing whaling rather than banning it - are gaining support.
Japan kills some 1,000 whales each year under an IWC-allowed scientific program, and the meat is sold as food. Many environmental groups object, but Japan argues the program is needed to gauge whale populations and study their breeding and feeding habits.
Japan argues that whale hunting is part of its culture, while opponents such as the United States and Britain argue the world should protect the endangered species.
Tokyo's stance that it has a right to hunt the mammals as a whale-meat eating nation is winning some sympathy, said Hideaki Okada of Japan's Fisheries Agency.
"I think it's 50-50," Okada said when asked about support for Japan in the commission. "But I do feel that Japan's position on particular areas like dietary culture is being understood to a certain extent."
The past year has seen feverish activity by both anti- and pro-whaling camps to recruit fellow-travelers to the IWC, which meets May 28-31 in Anchorage.
Anti-whaling activists count several new members - most recently Greece, which just joined the IWC last Wednesday - among their coalition.
New Zealand premier Helen Clark, a leading critic of whale hunting, said Monday the IWC is "quite finely poised at the present time between countries that support the conservation of whales and countries that don't."
"Greece coming in to support the conservation argument is very greatly appreciated by New Zealand," she said after greeting Greek Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis.
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