Questions grow over communications system used by Hokkaido tour operator

The mobile phone belonging to the captain of a tour boat that sank off Hokkaido was unreachable during most of the vessel’s fateful final trip, sources familiar with the case have said, highlighting an apparent failure by the operator to properly manage its communications system.

Twelve people remained unaccounted for Sunday after the 19-ton Kazu I went missing in rough waters while sightseeing around the scenic Shiretoko Peninsula on April 23.

The finding highlighted a series of flaws in the communications system of operator Shiretoko Yuransen, including a broken radio antenna at its office on the day of the accident. It was also discovered that an employee did not know the number of the satellite mobile phone believed to have been kept on the boat, according to the sources.

Three days before the accident, Noriyuki Toyoda, the 54-year-old captain of the Kazu I, won approval from a regulator to use his mobile phone rather than the satellite mobile phone on the boat as a means of communication, according to the transport ministry.

The regulator approved the change because Toyoda said the mobile phone would be reachable at sea, the ministry said.

A call seeking help from the Japan Coast Guard was made using a passenger’s mobile phone, sources from the coast guard said. A distress call from the radio on the Kazu I was also picked up by another boat operator.

Questions grow over communications system used by Hokkaido tour operator
Officers on a vessel belonging to the Hokkaido Prefectural Police are believed to be using an underwater camera to search waters near the Kazu I’s resting place off the Shiretoko Peninsula in Hokkaido on Sunday. | KYODO

The boat had 26 people aboard in total. So far the bodies of 14 people have been found.

The boat was found Friday on a seabed slope near the peninsula at a depth of about 115 to 120 meters, where visibility is only 1 to 2 meters.

On Sunday, the coast guard, the Maritime Self-Defense Force and Hokkaido Prefectural Police continued the search of the waters near the Kazu I’s resting place using underwater cameras. Searches for the missing people using ships and aircraft were also continuing.

Divers with the coast guard’s Special Rescue Team can reach a depth of only up to 60 meters, so specially trained divers from the private sector may be asked to participate in the operation.

According to the coast guard, the boat was found on the seabed about 1 kilometer west-northwest of a waterfall on the peninsula, the same location where the distress call was made.

Authorities are contacting Russia as they may need to search areas around Kunashiri, one of the Russian-held islands at the center of the two countries’ territorial dispute.

Hiroyasu Ito, director at Yokohama-based Maritime Disaster Prevention Center, says the missing people may have drifted toward the disputed islands because of complicated ocean currents in the area.

“I think (the coast guard) wants to search the area right now,” Ito said, expressing hopes that they will be able to do so soon.

A Japan Coast Guard vessel searches for people still missing following a tour boat sinking in waters off Hokkaido's Shiretoko Peninsula on Saturday. | KYODO
A Japan Coast Guard vessel searches for people still missing following a tour boat sinking in waters off Hokkaido’s Shiretoko Peninsula on Saturday. | KYODO

The coast guard is investigating the incident, with the operator likely to face charges of professional negligence resulting in death.

Shiretoko Yuransen’s president, Seiichi Katsurada, publicly apologized Wednesday, admitting that his decision to green light the ship’s departure despite the chance of bad weather was inappropriate.

A relative of Naoki Kato, 35, and Kato’s three-year-old daughter, Nanako, who both died in the sinking, said in a statement Sunday that he is “in a state of sorrow that words cannot express.” The relative is a brother of Kato’s wife, who remains missing.

“I strongly hope that all the victims will be found as soon as possible,” he said through a lawyer.

On Saturday, people laid flowers at a gymnasium in the town of Shari, Hokkaido, where the bodies of victims had been placed. Among the visitors was Katsunori Nojiri, the 54-year-old head of a local tourism association.

“My heart aches when I think about the feelings of the bereaved. I hope those missing will be found as soon as possible,” he said.

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