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Sunday, Feb. 24, 2008

Collision suspicions pointing to coverup

Defense Ministry's reluctance to disclose details draws political flak


Staff writer

The public distrust surrounding the maritime collision between a Japanese warship and a fishing boat has politicians, the fishing industry, and the relatives of two missing fishermen all thinking one thing — officials in the Defense Ministry may be hiding key information.

News photo
Relatives of missing fishermen Haruo Kichisei and his son, Tetsuhiro, visit the area on Saturday where the collision between their boat and the destroyer Atago occurred Tuesday, on a Maritime Self-Defense Force vessel off Chiba Prefecture. KYODO PHOTO

The ministry has disclosed few details of Tuesday's collision off Chiba Prefecture, in which the advanced Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer Atago rammed and sank a trawler with two fishermen, who remain missing.

Crucial details that have not yet surfaced include the Atago's course and number of watch standers at the time, and the information the standers reported to the cabin.

The ministry's apparent reluctance to disclose key details is even being criticized by influential politicians in the ruling party, which is giving more ammunition to the opposition camp.

Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, meanwhile, is trying to contain the political fallout from the accident, which is one of the worst in the MSDF's 54-year history.

"Information has come out only little by little. . . . If they do that intentionally, it is a big problem, a problem with its nature," Bunmei Ibuki, secretary general of the Liberal Democratic Party, said at a news conference Friday. Ibuki is the LDP's No. 2 man after Fukuda, who doubles as president.

The Atago, which is equipped with the Aegis advanced missile defense system, collided with the trawler Seitoku Maru at 4:07 a.m. Tuesday 42 km south of the Boso Peninsula in Chiba Prefecture. It is believed the destroyer hit the Seitoku Maru amidships on the port side and split it in two. The father-son crew remain missing.

According to maritime law, a ship is required to change course to avert a collision if it sees another ship approaching from the right side.

Fishermen aboard their own fishing boats who were sailing together with the Seitoku Maru at the time told a news conference Thursday that the Seitoku Maru and their boats were approaching the Atago from the right, and claimed that the Atago was legally obliged to yield to the trawlers.

But the Atago just kept going straight and rammed the Seitoku Maru, the fishermen said.

Their claim was backed by the sailing courses of the boats, which were recorded by their global positioning system equipment.

The 3rd Regional Coast Guard Headquarters has determined, based on gray paint traces found on the recovered trawler wreckage, that the Atago hit the port side of the fishing boat. This suggests the Atago may have seen the Seitoku Maru coming from the right and that the destroyer was therefore obliged to give way.

Despite the GPS records, the Defense Ministry has not disclosed any data or accounts from the crew as to the Atago's course and position at the time of the accident.

Instead, the ministry appears to be flip-flopping.

Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba said Tuesday that a watch stander on the Atago saw a green light ahead of the destroyer's starboard side at 4:05 a.m. The remark raised speculation that a trawler may have been, as viewed from Atago, moving from left to the right because ships are required by law to display a green light on the starboard side and a red light on the port side.

But the next day, defense officials suddenly started saying that the same stander also saw a light from the Seitoku Maru at 3:55 a.m. on the right side of Atago, while officially refusing to reveal the color, saying it could affect the investigation being carried out by the Japan Coast Guard.

The color was reportedly red, which indicates Seitoku Maru was moving from right to left ahead of Atago.

"The Defense Ministry has not disclosed much information simply because, I think, they do not want to give out information that could bring them disadvantages," said Hiroshi Otsuka, professor at the graduate school of Kobe University and expert on criminal law.

"The ministry should grasp information on what exactly happened, and disclose it to the public. Otherwise it will be difficult to recover the public trust it has lost by making mistakes" in the process of investigating the accident, he said.

Otsuka, familiar with a variety of maritime accidents, has experience teaching at the Japan Coast Guard Academy. The professor said the accident was probably caused by a very rudimentary error of the part of the MSDF officers, or negligence in watching other ships.

According to the ministry, a watch stander on the Atago recognized the light of the Seitoku Maru 12 minutes before the collision, but the warship kept going straight in autopilot mode.

The crew switched to manual steering and ordered the warship into full astern propulsion only one minute before it collided with Seitoku Maru.

It appears the Atago lost track of the Seitoku Maru during the 11 minutes because it did not do anything to avoid the accident, including sounding an alarm, Otsuka pointed out.

"If the (crew) kept watching properly, an accident like this is unthinkable. I suspect (the crew of Atago) even did not watch the radar carefully," Otsuka said.

"Watching (other ships) is the No. 1 obligation (for a ship in navigation). But still many accidents occur because of negligence in watching," he said.



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