Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba tried Tuesday to contain the political fallout over fresh allegations that his ministry tried to cover up key information concerning the Feb. 19 collision of a warship and a trawler off Chiba Prefecture.
Ministry officials revealed that Ishiba first received a report from subordinates around 8:30 p.m that day that the destroyer Atago first recognized a light apparently belonging to the trawler Seitoku Maru at 3:55 a.m., 12 minutes before the warship ran over the fishing boat at 4:07 a.m., cutting the vessel in two and sending its wheelhouse to the bottom.
The boat’s father-son crew remain missing.
The ministry had initially said Atago watch standers first recognized a green light from a vessel at 4:05 a.m. But even after Ishiba received the report of the light seen at 3:55 a.m., the ministry did not correct the earlier statement during an 11 p.m. media briefing by a Maritime Self-Defense Force officer.
“This is neither a coverup nor manipulation of information,” Ishiba told reporters Tuesday morning.
The ministry did not disclose the information during the media briefing because the details were not confirmed at that time, he said. It has yet to be confirmed, however, if the light seen at 3:55 a.m. was from the Seitoku Maru, as it was traveling with other trawlers at the time. The ministry believes this light was from the Seitoku Maru.
The light seen at 3:55 a.m. was reportedly red, whereas a green light was spotted at 4:05 a.m. Vessels operating at night are required to display a green navigation light on their right side and a red light on their left side.
If the Atago crew saw a green light, it could indicate that the warship may have technically held right of way over that vessel. Earlier reports, however, said the warship struck the trawler on the left side.
Speculation was rife that the MSDF may have tried to cover up the report about spotting the earlier red light to favor its position in the expected litigation over the accident.
The MSDF interviewed several Atago crew members by phone from late Feb. 19 to early Feb. 20, and confirmed the crew first saw a light at 3:55 a.m. The MSDF gave this confirmed account to Ishiba at 8:30 a.m. Feb. 20.
Then Ishiba corrected his statement at 5 p.m. that day in a Liberal Democratic Party meeting on defense, reporting on the 3:55 a.m. sighting for the first time to the public.