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1988 Sub Tragedy Offers Insight Into Japan's Crisis Protocol

Asia: Tokyo's response illustrates why U.S. handling of recent accident fell short of expectations.


TOKYO — The sinking of the Japanese training vessel Ehime Maru by the U.S. nuclear submarine Greeneville has highlighted differences in how the two nations manage similar crises.

A look back at another accident involving a military submarine and a fishing vessel--this one in Tokyo Bay nearly 13 years ago--provides insight into Japanese expectations and how the Asian nation might have handled this year's accident off Hawaii had both parties been Japanese.

On July 23, 1988, a group of 48 people chartered the 154-ton Daiichi Fujimaru for a day of fishing. It was summer vacation, the sun was shining, and there were very few clouds. Spirits soared as the group headed out about 2:15 in the afternoon for a cruise to Niijima Island.

One father told his son that this was their lucky day and that he expected to catch a big one. Several mothers bade their sons and husbands goodbye, never imagining that it would be the last time they would see them alive.

Just an hour out of port, as the 92-foot Daiichi Fujimaru reached the mouth of Tokyo Bay, many of those on board sighted the 2,200-ton Japanese submarine Nadashio on the surface, returning to nearby Yokosuka naval base after a day of sea exercises.

According to the investigation that ensued, as the submarine got closer, it swerved to avoid a sailboat and crashed headlong into the Daiichi Fujimaru. Within two minutes, the fishing boat sank beneath the waves, claiming 30 lives. None of the Nadashio's 75 crew members was hurt.

As with the ongoing Ehime Maru case, the sinking of the Daiichi Fujimaru was a huge media story in Japan. Major news organizations assigned as many as 100 reporters each to cover every twist and turn, flew helicopters overhead, chartered boats, printed special editions and broadcast hourly updates.

"There were many false reports," recalls Masanori Koyama, the attorney who defended the submarine captain. "One Mainichi newspaper reporter entered the hospital in pajamas pretending he was a patient."

Because everyone involved was Japanese and understood the cultural importance of apologies, submarine Capt. Keisuke Yamashita, wearing street clothes, quickly traveled to the homes of victims' families and tearfully expressed his heartfelt regret, well before any official blame or responsibility was handed down.

In Japan, an apology does not necessarily signal guilt or legal responsibility but instead acknowledges the pain suffered by the other party--in contrast to the U.S., where those involved in an accident are often reluctant to apologize because it might suggest admission of liability.

In the aftermath of the 1988 accident, the Japanese government also moved quickly and decisively to raise the Daiichi Fujimaru, recover the bodies, pay for the funerals and compensate the victims' families, all of it without any prodding from the public or the media. Raising a fishing vessel is easier in relatively shallow water than in the 1,800-foot depths off Hawaii, but in retrospect most people give the government high marks for its response.

"On the whole, they dealt with the crisis beautifully," says Hiroyuki Isaka, a public relations official with a firm that many of the victims worked for. "I had no complaints."

The government paid $16.7 million to the 30 families--a small amount, perhaps, in America's litigious society, but generous at the time by Japanese standards. And the payments were handed out within a few months of the accident, well before responsibility was established.

"The [Self-Defense Forces] paid all compensation with sincerity," recalls Shunichi Tagawa, the attorney who represented the captain of the fishing vessel in later negotiations over blame and compensation. "Then again, it used our tax money. And they would have been in real trouble if they hadn't."

A few key figures dutifully took responsibility. But in classic Japanese fashion, those higher up in the hierarchy sacrificed at the altar of public opinion saw their careers resuscitated a few years later.

Tsutomu Kawara resigned as head of Japan's Defense Agency a month after the accident, but he reappeared in government Cabinets in 1997 and 1999 to handle construction and economic portfolios, by which time his role in the accident was relegated to a footnote.

Both captains were forced to resign but eventually found jobs in the private sector.

Determining who exactly was responsible for Japan's worst naval accident since World War II took much longer. Japan has no military court system, so over several years the case worked its way through the nation's cumbersome civilian courts.

In a face-saving early decision, the submarine and fishing boat captains were blamed equally. And each at one point was given a ceremonial jail sentence that was immediately suspended. Only much later, in a 1994 decision, was most of the blame pinned on the submarine captain.

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