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By Thomas Escritt
THE HAGUE (Reuters) - Australia's opposition to Japanese whaling is an attempt to impose foreign moral standards on Japan and has no legal basis, Japan told the World Court on Tuesday in a case brought by Australia.
Despite an international whaling moratorium in force since 1986, Japan continues to catch whales in the Antarctic under a treaty that allows unlimited whaling for scientific research.
But critics say the real reason for the hunt is to continue harvesting whale meat.
Speaking in the second week of hearings, Japan's deputy foreign minister, Koji Tsuruoka, said his country had the right to hunt and kill the marine mammals for scientific research.
"Japan is conducting a comprehensive scientific research program because it wishes to resume commercial whaling, based on science, in a sustainable manner," he said.
The hearings at the Hague-based International Court of Justice (ICJ), which settles disputes between nations, are the latest act in a long-running debate over Japan's whaling.
Under a 1946 treaty on whaling, to which Japan is a signatory, countries can catch unlimited numbers of whales if they are needed for scientific purposes, regardless of the moratorium agreed in the 1980s.
The treaty does not address what counts as science, but Australia argues that Japan's collection of raw data without having in mind a specific question does not qualify and that its research is just a smokescreen.
Tsuruoka said Japan caught and killed 850 whales each year, providing data that would allow the country to whale without risking a repeat of past over-whaling and stock depletion.
"Are all cetaceans sacred and endangered?" asked Tsuruoka. "I can understand the emotional background to this position but fail to see how it can be translated to a legal position."
The divergent attitudes of Japan and Australia on whaling were a reflection of their different cultures, he said.
"We do not criticize other cultures," he said. "Were it necessary to establish the superiority of one culture over another the world would never be at peace."
Both countries have agreed to be bound by the verdict of the Hague-based court.
Activists are hoping for a ruling against Tokyo that they believe will put an end to whaling in the Southern Ocean - though Japan could withdraw from international whaling agreements and continue whaling even if it did lose the case.
Whaling was once widespread around the world, but Japan is now one of only a handful of countries that continues the practice. The meat is eaten by many Japanese consumers who consider it a delicacy.
(Reporting by Thomas Escritt; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)