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TOKYO - Japan's top whaling official indicated today that Tokyo would block U.S. attempts to reinstate a five-year whale hunting season for Alaska Eskimos.
The issue has been a flashpoint between the two countries since Japan led a drive, at a May meeting of the International Whaling Commission, to ban the hunting of bowhead whales by Eskimo subsistence hunters.
"Our target is not the Alaskans, it is the double standard of the United States," chief Japanese whale negotiator Masayuki Komatsu told The Associated Press today. "There are still many points that must be cleared up."
The comments appeared to step back from an earlier softening on the issue by Agriculture and Fisheries Minister Tsutomu Takebe. While Komatsu reiterated Takebe's stance that Japan supported Eskimo whaling in principle, he said Japan demands that their hunt quota be reviewed once a year instead of once every five years.
He said that would help preserve whale populations and make sure they are not overhunted.
The decision to block Eskimo hunting in May was seen widely as payback for U.S. opposition to Japanese-led efforts to lift a 1986 ban on commercial whaling. It was the first time since the 1970s that aboriginal hunting quotas had been denied. Eskimos had been allowed to hunt 55 bowhead whales over five-year periods.
The United States protested the decision, and Secretary of State Colin Powell told Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles he would try to get the decision reversed.
The United States could call for a revote on the issue as early as October, when the IWC is scheduled to hold its next meeting. But Komatsu indicated Japan would try to block it and push for a more limited hunt.
Komatsu's comments came as 86 tons of fresh whale meat began arriving at freezers outside Tokyo's sprawling Tsukiji fish market, the world's largest, for the first time this season.
The whale meat is just a fraction of the 2,200 tons that currently is on sale from whales killed during whaling expeditions in the seas around Antarctica between November 2001 and May this year. Much of the rest went on sale last week elsewhere in the country.
Japan is one of the world's largest consumers of whale meat and, despite a global ban on commercial whaling, kills hundreds of the mammals each year as part of its so-called research program.
The International Whaling Commission allows Japan a limited catch for scientific research.