TOKYO (AP) _ Under a program that permits whaling for scientific research, five Japanese ships set sail for the Antarctic on Tuesday to kill 400 minke whales that will be consumed as gourmet meat back home.

Japan has long insisted that the ban on commercial whaling should be lifted, maintaining that some whales, like the relatively small minke, are plentiful.

The five ships, expected to return in April, will collect data on the death rates and living habits of the whales, which will be submitted to the International Whaling Commission, the government said.

Greenpeace Japan said that whales in the Antarctic should be protected and that Japan should carry out research by watching the whales, not killing them.

The International Whaling Commission banned commercial whaling in 1986 in response to fears about whale extinction. The United States is one of the leading anti-whaling nations. Norway has been killing as many whales as it wants because it objected when the original moratorium was proposed.

The program that allows Japanese scientific whaling was set up under an International Whaling Commission agreement.

Some Japanese eat the meat caught for research at popular restaurants specializing in whale dishes. Environmentalists say such sales encourage illegal whaling.