Pro-whaling countries are meeting in Tokyo to plot a path towards lifting the moratorium on commercial whaling.
Meat from Japan's scientific whaling programme is sold for food
Japan invited all 72 members of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), but anti-whaling countries such as Britain and Australia are staying away.
The three-day meeting convenes against the backdrop of clashes in the Antarctic between Japanese whaling ships and conservation groups.
Australia and New Zealand said protestors had gone too far.
New Zealand conservation minister Chris Carter said whalers and campaigners were engaging in "stupid playground behaviour".
Japan called the Tokyo talks with the declared aim of bridging the divide between pro- and anti-whaling members which has bedevilled the IWC in recent years.
The Japanese government believes the commission has become too focused on conserving whales. It wants the 21-year global moratorium on commercial hunting to be lifted, and the IWC to resume its original purpose of regulating whaling.
Japan's IWC commissioner, Minoru Morimoto, opened the meeting by expressing disappointment at the non-attendance of nearly half the whaling body.
"One of our goals is to improve the atmosphere of the IWC, which has become one of confrontation, and to improve dialogue," he told delegates.
"It's a shame most anti-whaling nations chose confrontation," he added.
Australia, New Zealand, the US and the UK were among 26 nations that have shunned the conference.
Before the meeting opened, the UK said that the IWC itself was the "only recognised forum in which to hold these discussions".
"We are grateful to Japan for trying to further discussions on issues of division in the IWC," said a spokesman for the UK's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).
"However we believe this initiative may serve to further polarise and distract members from the IWC's important conservation work."
High seas drama
Japan has been accused by environmentalists of buying the support of poorer nations with aid packages, but this was denied by delegates at the conference.
"We are not a whale-hunting country, but the matter of resources within our sea is very important to us," Cedric Liburd, fisheries minister of St Kitts and Nevis, told the Associated Press. "No one can buy our vote."
Japan, which says whale meat is part of its culture, hunts whales for what it calls scientific research purposes.
THE LEGALITIES OF WHALING
Objection - A country formally objects to the IWC moratorium, declaring itself exempt
Scientific - A nation issues unilateral 'scientific permits'; any IWC member can do this
Aboriginal - IWC grants permits to indigenous groups for subsistence food
Its fleet left port in November for the Antarctic seas to hunt 850 minke whales and 10 fin whales.
Recently the fleet was tracked down by ships belonging to conservation groups, with some fraught confrontations resulting.
A collision between Japan's Kaiko Maru and a vessel operated by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society saw the Japanese ship damage its propeller, with reports suggesting it may have to return to port.
The Japanese government has requested its New Zealand counterparts to detain Sea Shepherd's vessels, while some environment groups have asked the Wellington and Canberra governments for diplomatic action against Japan.
Mr Carter appealed to Sea Shepherd not to do anything that could endanger lives, while Australia's environment minister Malcolm Turnbull said: "It is simply unacceptable for any vessel to threaten or to use violence against other ships at sea.
"These are dangerous and irresponsible actions."
It appears that their appeals were successful, with Sea Shepherd promising not to ram or disable the Japanese ships.