In its first appearance before the Hague-based International Court of Justice, Japan rebutted Australia's accusations that its annual whale hunts around Antarctica amount to commercial whaling, and not research. The bitter legal dispute may have long-term implications.
Setting out his case in English and French, Japan's Deputy Foreign Minister Koji Tsuruoka argued Tokyo's annual hunt for minke and fin whales in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica is purely for research purposes.
Speaking Tuesday before the United Nations' highest court, he said Japan strictly abides by international law, and its research findings help the scientific community.
"Japan is conducting a comprehensive scientific research program because Japan wishes to resume commercial whaling based on science in a sustainable manner," Tsuruoka said.
Without that research, Japan says, it will not have scientific grounds to prove commercial whaling can eventually be resumed around Antarctica, where a moratorium has been in place for nearly three decades.
Australia wants the court to turn the Antarctica whaling moratorium into a permanent ban. Arguing the case last week, Australian lawyer James Crawford claimed Japan's use of a special research provision is commercial whaling in disguise.
"Under the two programs, Japan has killed more than 10,000 whales purportedly on the pursuit of information that is not required for the effective conservation and management of whale stocks in the Southern Ocean or for any other identified scientific purpose," he said.
Whale meat is considered a delicacy in Japan. But widescale whaling by a number of countries in the past has decimated whale species in many areas, including around Antarctica.
Greenpeace Oceans Campaigner John Frizell backs Australia's arguments.
"The whale populations in the Antarctic have suffered tremendously from commercial whaling," he said. "Most of the populations are heavily depleted. Whales are long living, up to 100 years. They need long-term protection in order to recover."
Australia banned its own whaling in 1979, setting the country on the path of protecting whales. Its case at the International Court of Justice is being supported by New Zealand.
But Japan's Tsuruoka argues Australia is trying to impose its beliefs on others and to change the framework of the International Whaling Commission.
"Australia has a sovereign right to decide its position," he said. "But Australia cannot impose its will on other nations, nor change the IWC to an organization opposed to whaling."
The court is not expected to rule for several months. Its judgement on the legality of Japan's annual whale hunt is expected to be final and binding.