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TOKYO (AP) _ Leading Japanese lawmakers savored whale-meat delicacies at a government-backed blubber bash Thursday and hundreds of supporters rallied in downtown Tokyo for the resumption of commercial whaling.

Fishery officials and restaurateurs joined the nearly four dozen politicians for the evening VIP tasting party, meant to bolster Japan's pro-whaling push as it now plays host to the annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission.

Topping the menu: Whale steak, whale stew and whale sashimi.

``It takes patience to make opponents understand Japan's cultural attachment to whales,'' said Kiichi Inoue, a leader of the Conservative Party and member of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's ruling coalition. ``And we have to make clear that we are committed to both whaling and sustaining the resource.''

Earlier in the day, whale-meat aficionados marched through the streets brandishing billboards that read: ``Protect and Eat!''

The festive events came as Japanese officials shrugged off increasing international pressure and announced Thursday they have no intention of ending the killing of whales for research and instead hope to kill more.

Japan has come under harsh criticism from the United States, Australia and other countries for its research whaling program.

Hundreds of whales are killed each year under the program. Opponents have long claimed it is little more than a pretext for keeping at least some of Japan's whaling industry alive despite an international moratorium on commercial whaling in effect since 1986. The opponents say Japan's research program is commercial whaling in disguise because the meat is sold after the research and most of it ends up in restaurants.

Recently, however, the debate has shifted toward whether it is necessary to kill the whales for research, or whether the mammals could be studied without resorting to lethal methods.

The issue has already been raised at the International Whaling Commission conference, which opened April 25 and runs through May 24 in the southern Japan port of Shimonoseki, the home port of Japan's research whaling fleet.

``We need to continue both research from sightings and from hunts,'' said Keiichi Nakajima, head of Japan's delegation to the conference. ``We need to do this regardless of what opponents say.''

Japanese officials say lethal research is needed because whales must be dissected to determine age, fertility and feeding patterns. They also contend that studies indicate minke and Bryde's whales are harming Japan's fishing industry because of their large consumption of anchovies.

As expected, Japan is pushing hard in Shimonoseki to lift the whaling ban _ a stance it hoped to underline at Thursday's dinner, which sported the theme of preserving the country's whaling culture.

``I want our children to develop a good taste for whale,'' said Hyojun Shimomichi, a whaler's wife from Japan's northernmost main island of Hokkaido, as she cleaned an empty stall that served skewered cubes of whale cutlet.

Officials admit, however, they probably do not have the three-quarters majority needed among the countries in the commission to end the commercial ban.

The United States and 14 other anti-whaling nations on Thursday condemned Japan's plans to double its research catch in the northwest Pacific and start harvesting a species it hasn't hunted in more than two decades.