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TOKYO (AP) _ Japan is launching a five-month expedition to kill about 400 whales in Antarctic waters, the government said Thursday, an announcement likely to draw fire from nations opposed to whale hunting, including the United States.

Five Japanese whaling ships will set out Friday from the port of Shimonoseki, 525 miles southwest of Tokyo, the Fisheries Agency announced on its Web site.

The agency said the hunt is part of its research into minke whale migration patterns, population trends and diet. The data will be compiled in a final report Japan expects to submit to the International Whaling Commission in 2005, Fisheries Agency official Takanori Nagatomo said.

Japan is one of the world's largest consumers of whale meat, considered a delicacy there. Although the commission banned commercial whaling in 1986 to protect the endangered mammals, it approved limited catches for Japan's scientific research program a year later.

Fisheries Agency officials say the hunt allows them to collect data for measuring the impact of whale herds on global fisheries stocks. The research costs the country about $37 million a year, part of which is paid through the sale of the meat to wholesalers.

Nations opposed to whaling, including the United States, Britain and Australia, say the program is commercial whaling in disguise, because most of the whale meat ends up in restaurants.

Japan is seeking approval from the U.N. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species to hunt Bryde's and minke whales, arguing they are no longer scarce.

The convention considers the two species to be among the world's most-endangered animals and bans trading of their meat. Two previous Japanese attempts to change the ruling have failed.

In September, Japanese ships returned from the northwest Pacific Ocean with 194 whales, including 100 minke, 50 Bryde's, five sperm whales and 39 sei, declared an endangered species in 1976. In April, another fleet of ships returned from the Antarctic, bringing back 440 minke whales.