TOKYO (AP) _ After years of deriding Japan for its support of whaling and its huge market for endangered animals, several major conservation groups are cautiously welcoming Japan in from the cold.

''Basically, the Japanese have gone from being the worst to being one of the worst,'' said Ginette Hemley, director of TRAFFIC USA, an animal protection lobbying group. ''They still are the world's largest importer of endangered species, but they are finally becoming part of the dialogue.''

For two weeks, Japan has hosted more than 1,400 government officials and private lobbyists in the western city of Kyoto for a meeting of the 112-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

Treaty protection for nearly 100 species, including African elephants, was a focus of the group's first conference since 1989.

Hemley said that by playing host to the conference, which ends Friday, Japan has demonstrated a willingness to address Japanese treaty infractions in an international forum. ''They are ready to come out in the open because they have made a lot of progress,'' she said.

TRAFFIC believes Japan's market for endangered species could be worth as much as $100 million a year, with large imports of birds and reptile and crocodile skins. Rhinoceros horns still can be found at traditional pharmacies, where they are sold as an aphrodisiac.

Japan also has special permission to trade in seven species protected under the treaty, more than any other country. But over the past year, Japan has stopped trading in seven others.

''I'd been hard on Japan over the past couple of years, but for the last six months I was praising them,'' said Marydele Donnely of the Washington- based Center for Marine Conservation.

Donnely said she has been encouraged by Japan's decisions to stop using drift nets and to curtail imports of hawksbill turtles, whose shells are used for carving.

But she also criticized Japan's intense, high-profile lobbying to kill a Swedish proposal at the Kyoto conference that would have banned fishing for bluefin tuna in the western Atlantic Ocean. ''I think it showed ruthlessness, and I would also call it deplorable,'' she said.

Sweden's chief delegate, Sven Johannson, complaining that politics had overshadowed biological concerns, withdrew the proposal on Tuesday.

Mainly because of the huge demand for sushi and sashimi, Japan is the world's largest importer of bluefin tuna. About half the total worldwide catch is consumed in Japan.

According to estimates released recently by the International Commission for Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, the population of adult bluefin in the western Atlantic has plunged 90 percent over the past 20 years.

Those figures prompted conservationists to seek protection for the species. Tuna fishermen in Japan quickly began lobbying against the move, and headlines warned Japanese newspaper readers that their right to eat sashimi was under attack.