OFF OKINAWA, Japan — Hiroshi Kobayashi has been hunting whales for three years now. He knows just where to look, and boasts that, in season, he has a close-to-perfect record of finding them.
But he's never killed one — he captains a whale-watching boat for tourists. And he thinks whaling is, or should be, a thing of the past.
"They used to whale here in Okinawa," he said after taking out a group to see humpback whales migrating through the waters near this southern Japanese island. "It wasn't a problem because there were more whales then. But I really can't support killing them now."
Despite worldwide opposition, the Japanese government is battling to keep the nation's whaling fleet afloat. Now, it also faces a threat at home — a lack of interest among young people who grew up during an international whaling ban, have never eaten whale and see the mammals more as impressive living creatures than as a potential meal.
"It just doesn't seem right," said Kobayashi, who is in his 30s.
The government is unmoved by such sentiment. This week, Tokyo hosted a conference of pro-whaling nations aimed at galvanizing support for the lifting of an international ban on commercial whaling that has been in place since the 1980s.
Pro-whaling nations argue that the International Whaling Commission has abandoned its original purpose of managing commercial whaling and has in effect turned into a whale protection lobby. About half of the commission members — including the U.S. and Britain — boycotted the meeting.
A summary issued after the meeting, which ended Thursday, called the IWC "dysfunctional" and said the "criminalization of whaling should be removed."
Joji Morishita, Japan's representative at the conference, said the country will push for reforms at the next commission meeting, to be held in Alaska. But he warned that Japan won't wait forever.
"Unless we change the IWC's way of doing things, this international organization will be lost," he said, adding that Japan may pull out altogether.
In the meantime, the international commercial whaling ban hasn't stopped Japan from killing whales. Japanese whalers caught about 1,070 minke whales in 2006, as well as 170 Bryde's, sei, sperm and fin whales under the auspices of a research program that began after the IWC ban in 1986.
This year's hunt in the Antarctic may be called off early — a Japanese whaling ship was crippled by fire this week off the world's largest penguin breeding grounds. One crew member was missing, and although the fire was contained below decks it continued to burn, New Zealand Conservation Minister Chris Carter said.
Japan's fisheries agency said the blaze could force an early end to this season's hunt.
The research whaling program is allowed by the IWC, which uses its data and approves its kill quotas. Japanese officials claim the kills are needed to gauge whale populations and to study their breeding and feeding habits. Marine biologists analyze bones from the dead whales and study their stomach contents.
Many environmental groups say the hunts are a pretext to keep Japan's tiny whaling industry alive. Meat from the catch is sold commercially. Canned or frozen whale can be found in most large Japanese supermarkets, and expensive restaurants specializing in whale meat are not uncommon.
But whale is no longer an important part of the Japanese diet.
Unlike older Japanese, who remember whale as a regular item on school lunch menus, many Japanese under age 40 have never tried the meat and, with other sources of protein such as beef more widely available, have little incentive to do so.
The Cetacean Research Institute, which is in charge of the research whaling fleet, hopes to change that.
"As part of our promotion campaign inside Japan, we are trying to have whales eaten for school lunches," said institute spokesman Gabriel Gomez. "It's important to actually try the food and to learn that it's actually good."
He said whale goes well with Japanese food.
"Since Japanese people eat rice, I think it's good for them to eat whales along with their vegetables," he said.
Winning back Japan's hearts and stomachs might be an uphill battle, however.
"My parents' generation may feel differently, but I feel sorry for the whales," said Mayuka Hamai, a college student who took Kobayashi's whale-watching tour. "I've never eaten whale. I'd rather look at one."