- Yoshimasa Hayashi cites Japan's " long tradition and culture of whaling"
- Environmental groups face off each year with Japan's whaling vessels
- The drama plays out in the chilly Antarctic waters
- A U.S. judge calls the conservationists "pirates"
Japan will never stop its annual hunt for whales, a government minister has reportedly said, amid recent clashes on the high seas between environmental activists and Japanese whaling ships.
"I don't think there will be any kind of an end for whaling by Japan," Yoshimasa Hayashi, the Japanese minister for agriculture, forestry and fisheries, said in an interview with the French news service Agence France-Presse on Tuesday.
His comments came after a U.S. judge described Sea Shepherd, the conservationist group that has sought to physically block the Japanese whale hunts, as "pirates."
Arguing that Japan has "a long tradition and culture of whaling," Hayashi, the secretary-general of a pro-whaling group in the governing Liberal Democratic Party, pointed out other countries' eating habits that may not have universal approval.
"In some countries they eat dogs, like Korea. In Australia they eat kangaroos," he was cited as saying. "We don't eat those animals, but we don't stop them from doing that because we understand that's their culture."
The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries confirmed that Hayashi gave the interview to AFP on Tuesday, but it declined to comment on the content of the article.
The interview took place the same week that Sea Shepherd and Japanese whaling authorities reported fresh clashes in Antarctic waters, with each side accusing the other of causing dangerous collisions between ships.
Japan's Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR) -- which conducts whaling activities under the authority of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries -- accused Sea Shepherd ships of "sabotage," saying they rammed into a Japanese whaling vessel while it was trying to refuel on Monday.
But Sea Shepherd's Australian division countered with a different version of events, saying that the Japanese ship had caused the collisions. No injuries were reported.
The two sides had exchanged angry claims about a previous clash last week, all part of drama that plays out each year in the chilly Antarctic waters.
Japan annually hunts whales despite a worldwide moratorium, utilizing a loophole in the law that allows for killing the mammals for scientific research. Whale meat is commonly available for consumption in Japan.
Environmental groups such as Sea Shepherd face off with the Japanese hunters, an approach that has resulted in collisions of ships, the detaining of activists and smoke bombs fired back and forth between the groups.
Sea Shepherd says the Japanese ships have intruded into Australian territorial waters and breached international and Australian law.
The Australian government has been one of the most vocal critics of Japanese whaling and is currently pursuing international legal action to try to stop the hunting.
But the ICR says its ships' activities are perfectly legal, noting that a U.S. court has banned Sea Shepherd from threatening whaling ships' operations or sailing within 500 yards of them.
A U.S. judge in Seattle used strong words in a ruling Monday that overturned a previous decision from a district court that had denied an injunction requested by the ICR and its claims of piracy against Portland-based Sea Shepherd.
"You don't need a peg leg or an eye patch," Chief Judge Alex Kozinski of the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals said in his opinion.
"When you ram ships; hurl glass containers of acid; drag metal-reinforced ropes in the water to damage propellers and rudders; launch smoke bombs and flares with hooks; and point high-powered lasers at other ships, you are, without a doubt, a pirate, no matter how high-minded you believe your purpose to be," the judge said.
All of those acts, according to Kozinski, are part of Sea Shepherd's tactics.
He said the ICR has a permit issued by Japan under the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling and noted that "neither the United States nor Japan recognizes Australia's jurisdiction over any portion of the Southern Ocean."