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Sunday, April 24, 2011

Building hospital ships for disaster response


Special to The Japan Times

KUROHIME, Nagano Prefecture — An earthquake of unprecedented magnitude, followed by a terrible tsunami, devastated the northeast coast of Japan on March 11, setting off a nuclear emergency that is having global effects.The combination of these calamities has also plunged Japan into a kind of national depression that I have never before experienced in the 50 years that have passed since I first came to this country.

Meanwhile, the response from the international community has been immediate, generous and heart-warming. I firmly believe, as a British-born Japanese citizen with Canadian offspring and grandchildren in Canada, that we, the Japanese people, must do something that only Japan can do.

Japan is an island nation that has shown outstanding skill in building warships, supertankers, containerships, research vessels and luxury cruise ships; we should now discuss and agree to design and build at least two modern ships that can immediately react to disasters both at home and abroad.

The idea of building hospital ships in Japan is not new. Until the end of the Pacific War, the converted liner Hikawamaru Maru, now permanently moored in retirement at Yamashita Park, Yokohama, was one of Japan's most famous. But no more hospital ships have been built in the past 66 years. That is a national tragedy considering ll the disasters that have struck Japan and our neighbors, let alone more distant areas of the world easily reached by ships carrying oil, minerals, trading goods and luxury passengers.

Japan now has seven large-scale luxury cruise ships (and many more smaller ones), ranging from the Nippon Maru at 21,235 gross tons to the Crystal Harmony at 49,400 gross tons, which cater to wealthy Japanese on prolonged vacations from Kamchatka to the Antarctic, Vietnam to Australia, Europe to South America, or all around the globe.

There is nothing wrong in this, but shouldn't we seek a balance? There are only three countries whose navies currently operate hospital ships: Russia, China and the United States. Three other countries, Germany, Britain and China have ships equipped with some medical facilities that can be used for emergency evacuations. Nongovernment organizations (NGOs), notably the Mercy Ships, operate small vessels that give aid internationally.

These ships and their medical staff, rescue teams and crews are all highly commendable, but when one considers that, by comparison, our world has no fewer than 44 huge cruise ships, ranging from the gigantic 225,282 gross tons to 158,000 gross tons, with 14 more under construction — not counting hundreds of smaller vessels — in this luxury trade, it is a pretty poor indication of where we put our values.

I confess to having sailed for several long cruises aboard the Asuka, giving lectures and writing, and very pleasant it was too. But even then I questioned whether this self indulgence was environmentally or even culturally wise.

Of course, the cruise ships employ many people, foster international tourism and are obliged to observe many rules and regulations that supposedly protect the environment. But is that enough in this troubled and changing 21st century?

The origins of hospital ships are both humane and militaristic. Hospital ships in the past supported foreign invasions by certain countries by giving first aid and evacuating their own wounded. Objections to Japan having hospital ships have been raised by quoting Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution: "land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained."

Yes, Japan has renounced war and kept to that promise since 1945, but at the same time, it has American military bases and a modern Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF), which is ready to use the most sophisticated weaponry it if so commanded by our democratically elected government.

An expert assured me that a single modern Japanese destroyer could wipe out a whole fleet of the old Imperial Navy. This may be so, but it has nothing to do with invasions by our neighbors, nor with the need for modern rescue and hospital ships.

In 2010 the USNS Mercy (which also came to the rescue in the recent Japanese disasters) cooperated with the Japanese destroyer Kunisaki when they brought medical construction and engineering projects to Cambodia as part of Pacific Partnership 2010. No objections were raised at that time as far as I know.

Therefore, in this day and age, using Article 9 as an excuse not to have hospital ships is vacuous. I propose that Japan build ships of around 30,000 gross tons (slightly bigger than the Asuka). This size would be effective, quick to respond, reasonably maneuverable and not as demanding on fuel as the 200,000-ton-plus cruise ship monsters.

They should be designed to withstand the most severe conditions. (Indications are that typhoons and so forth will get more frequent and worse.) They don't need to be icebreakers, but they should be able to venture safely into seas with scattered ice and debris. Lifeboats should be especially designed to act as emergency maritime ambulances. The ships should have medical facilities capable of handling the most severe emergencies.

With modern communication technology advancing almost by the minute, there is no reason why a surgeon in Tokyo, Beijing, New York, Moscow or wherever could not use satellite transmitted robotic surgery aboard these ships to carry out delicate lifesaving operations that would have been inconceivable 20 years ago.

Communications should be the very best and should include the capability to broadcast and share live sounds and images globally. The ships should be equipped with helicopters and an all-weatherproof maintenance hangar. With U.N. approval, for example, the ships should be able to move offshore from an area of armed conflict to give aid to civilian casualties and refugees. Japan is a neutral country so such aid should be extended to friend and foe alike — one reason for well-trained and equipped onboard security personnel.

This will entail onboard security, whether by Japanese SDF personnel or the Japan Coast Guard, or some other designated body as long as they can respond immediately and appropriately to attacks by pirates, terrorists, or to onboard emergencies. Japanese MSDF ships could protect the ship in dangerous waters if this were deemed necessary.

The proposed "disaster relief hospital ships" could have national and international volunteers in medical and marine research, in nursing and?service staff, and so on, but the general operation, coordination, training and maintenance should be Japanese.

The ships could be a unique and invaluable training facility for all manner of marine and medical response and research. For example, when not handling a disaster, research could be carried out on the effects of radiation or other pollution in the marine environment. The ships should alternate duties, with one ship based in Japan, the other on missions of rescue, exchange and good will abroad.

The building of these ships would go a long way to restoring national pride and hope, and could also begin to repay the generous and kind sympathy and assistance that we have received from the international community.

With international observers, experts and volunteers aboard, there would be no suspicion that the ships served some clandestine military objective. International respect would be regained.

Over the past 15 years, I have discussed this idea with many people in all fields, both Japanese and foreign, and apart from a few politicians and bureaucrats who do not wish to change what they perceive to be the status quo, plus a minority of older Japanese (always male) who have become mired in their own cynicism, the response has been very enthusiastic. Many doctors and nurses of all ages would eagerly volunteer, that's for sure.

Now is the time to start moving — at this page in history where the world thinks Japan is down. We must regain both maritime pride and status in a way that will be meaningful and welcomed.

A long time ago, when I was still a foreigner, I had a Japanese Seaman's Certificate. If the new ships ever needed an old codger (with Japanese citizenship) who never gets seasick and is quite happy to clean pots and scrub the decks, I'll gladly join the queue to volunteer.

Author and broadcaster C.W. Nicol is active in Japanese forest conservation. He has been a marine mammal technician for the Fisheries Research Board of Canada, sailed aboard the research vessel Calanus in the Canadian Arctic, and sailed to the Antarctic as an observer with the Japanese whaling fleet. He lectures at the Maritime Self-Defense Force College in Etajima on Japanese naval history.


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