In the wake of a tour boat accident off the Shiretoko Peninsula in Hokkaido that left 14 people dead and 12 missing, the Japanese government's regulations and checking systems for the safe navigation of vessels have been called into question. It is imperative to investigate and verify the problems behind the sinking of the Kazu I sightseeing boat.
Boat operator Shiretoko Yuransen had twice caused accidents in 2021, including having a boat run aground in the same waters where the Kazu I sank, and the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism's Hokkaido District Transport Bureau subsequently conducted a special audit of the firm.
The transport bureau instructed the company to thoroughly ensure that it would regularly contact the operations manager and keep records of its decisions on whether to have its boats leave port in its navigation record books.
In the ensuing surprise inspections, the bureau evaluated the firm as "having improved its safety awareness," and that "the president, who is the operations manager, is reachable anytime."
However, when the Kazu I accident took place, the president was out of the company office, and the firm had not been in regular contact with the operations manager.
The velocity of winds and the height of waves that were recorded in the company's navigation record books showed identical figures for almost all cruise days. This raises the suspicion that the surprise checkups were conducted in a perfunctory manner.
Furthermore, a ship inspection that was carried out just three days before the Kazu I accident in late April is also accused of having been lax.
The inspectors permitted the company to use a mobile phone in lieu of a satellite phone that should have been used as a means of communication. However, it turned out that most of the Kazu I's cruise route was outside the mobile phone's service area. The inspectors took the skipper's comment that "the mobile phone can be used at sea" at face value.
It is also essential to review the ways of regulating the operation of tour boats. The transport ministry has set up an expert committee and begun looking into general safety measures for small passenger ships.
Boat operators are required to submit safety management rules to the national government, including criteria for judging whether to allow its ships to set sail and for vessel operation systems.
The operator of the Kazu I, however, arbitrarily interpreted the rules and repeatedly went ahead with "conditional operations," in which the company would send its boats out to sea even when the waves were feared to be higher than its cruising departure criteria, and have the vessels return only after the waves became turbulent.
At a press conference held by the Shiretoko Yuransen president, it was revealed that the company had made light of its safety management rules. One would have to say the inspection system had become a mere facade.
While the transport ministry performs audits on boat operators to check whether they are complying with safety management codes, such inspections are generally limited to around once every three years.
It is necessary to establish a more effective and viable inspection scheme. The ministry is urged to make a rigorous judgment on the licensing of businesses and the suspension or revocation of licenses.
Operators of passenger services bear grave responsibility for their customers' lives. The national government must beef up measures to ensure the safe operation of those services.