Every year, Japan braves a barrage of condemnation from other governments, environmentalists and even some of its own citizens to launch a hunt that takes more than 1,000 whales. The debate over whether the slaughter is a time-honoured tradition and in the interests of science (which Japan alternately argues) or a barbaric practice with purely commercial motivations (a view advanced by the United States, Australia and much of the rest of the world) regularly culminates in full-blown international incidents. Japan recently demanded the Australian government take 'appropriate action' against the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, an anti-whaling group, after two of its activists forcibly boarded a Japanese vessel in the Southern Ocean. This came just weeks after Australia passed a ruling barring Japanese whalers from the Australian Antarctic economic exclusion zone. It's a heavy diplomatic price to pay to produce a delicacy most Japanese are not particularly enthusiastic about - studies show annual whale-meat consumption has dwindled from 5kg per person in the 1960s to a mere 30 grams now. It doesn't even seem to make economic sense: stockpiles of whale meat have soared and prices have dropped by half since 2000. But year after year Japan insists on sending out its boats and pushing for an end to the International Whaling Commission's (IWC) moratorium on commercial whale hunts, lavishing aid on the less-powerful countries it can convince to support its position. According to a number of politicians and pro-hunting lobbies such as the Japan Whaling Association, the annual whale hunt serves a higher scientific purpose. The association argues hunts are carried out to collect data 'for the management and conservation of whales'. But, in line with the IWC's stipulation that no whales killed in the name of research should go to waste, most of the meat from Japan's 'experiments' ends up on restaurant tables and supermarket shelves. Supporters of the practice argue this, too, is within the country's rights. Whales have been consumed in Japan for centuries - the Kojiki, a historical treatise written in the 8th century, mentions the mythical founder of the nation, Emperor Jimmu, sitting down to a whale dinner. The whaling lobby points out the IWC has deferred to the whale-eating traditions of some ethnic groups - aboriginal communities in Russia, North America and Greenland are permitted to engage in 'subsistence whaling' to meet 'cultural and nutritional requirements' - and questions why Japan hasn't been afforded the same privilege. In the words of the association, asking Japan to forgo whale meat for good 'would compare to Australians being asked to stop eating meat pies' or 'the English being asked to go without fish and chips'. The association may be exaggerating the importance of whale in the Japanese diet but there's a sizeable portion of the population that evidently doesn't appreciate foreigners telling them what to eat. A recent government-backed poll showed more than 90 per cent of the population supported a return to commercial whaling. Some analysts have also suggested the whaling issue is a safety valve of sorts for Japanese politicians. Regional sensitivities over Japan's wartime past mean officials are careful not to sound too patriotic, but when they stick up for the country's whaling traditions, they can pander to nationalist sentiment without touching on an issue that might offend its closest neighbours.