Secrecy hampers SDF death probe

'We don't dare ask,' officer says of elite maritime unit involved in fatal training incident

by Kakumi Kobayashi and Masato Kurosaki

Kyodo News

The death of a Maritime Self-Defense Force sailor resulting from a suspected bullying incident during training last month is yet another black eye for the MSDF, already awash with a spate of problems ranging from mismanagement of top secrets to a fatal collision at sea with a fishing boat.

But the investigation into the death of the 25-year-old sailor has been hampered by secrecy surrounding the MSDF’s elite unit.

The fatal incident occurred at the MSDF’s 1st Service School in Etajima, Hiroshima Prefecture, during a training program prior to entering the Special Boarding Unit.

The MSDF set up the unit in 2001 as the Self-Defense Forces’ first elite task force trying to emulate other nations’ special operations forces, such as the SEAL teams of the U.S. Navy and the Special Boat Service of the British Royal Navy.

The government was prompted to form the special unit after two purported North Korean spy boats entered Japanese waters in 1999.

Citing the need for secrecy, the MSDF has released little information about the unit, including how many members it has and what kind of training they undergo.

“Only a very limited number of people know exactly what the unit’s members are doing on any given day even within the MSDF,” an MSDF officer said. “We don’t dare ask.”

Defense Ministry sources said the plan is to build a 70-member unit that would engage in drills involving helicopters, speed boats and diving.

The petty officer 3rd class, whose name has not been released, died days after engaging in what the MSDF calls a training fight. Using body and head protection, he was to take on 15 opponents in rapid succession, but by the 14th he suffered an injury so severe he had to be hospitalized.

MSDF chief Adm. Keiji Akahoshi has remained tight-lipped about whether the fighting was within the norms of MSDF training.

“The question of how fighting training is usually conducted is still under investigation,” said Akahoshi, who heads the Defense Ministry’s Maritime Staff Office.

Akahoshi won’t even clarify the purpose of that type of training.

Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada reacted sharply to the MSDF’s position, telling a Diet session there was “something that went beyond the norms of training” in the incident.

The sailor was forced to take part in the martial arts training only two days before he was planning to transfer out of the training program.

The timing prompted suspicions that the “1 against 15″ fight had the nature of punishing the sailor.

His father has said the fighting was designed to make him out to be a quitter and his son died due to bullying.

The father was incensed when told that MSDF officers, including the training instructors, said the fight was meant as “a farewell present.”

Akahoshi declined comment on the father’s claims, while military journalist Tetsuo Maeda said the incident shows that dishonorable traditions of the old Imperial Japanese Navy remain even though it has been more than half a century since the MSDF was established.

It has also come to light that another sailor was forced to take part in similar training fights against 16 people in May — and sustained numerous injuries, including broken teeth — shortly before being transferred to a different unit.

“We have dropouts in any organization. But I don’t understand why (the deceased sailor) had to undergo such a training fight two days before he was supposed to leave,” said an SDF officer who asked not to be named.

“If any of my subordinates were to say he cannot continue hard training, I would simply tell him to pack up and leave immediately,” the officer said.

According to the MSDF, the 15 opponents took turns Sept. 9 fighting the sailor for 50 seconds each. After becoming fatigued and groggy, the sailor fell unconscious after sustaining a blow to the chin when fighting his 14th opponent. He died about two weeks after he was hospitalized.

The MSDF and the ministry have come under fire over the failure to make public that the sailor died following the series of fights.

“The MSDF tried not to disclose too much information partly because the incident was related to activities of the special task force,” another SDF officer said.

The MSDF simply announced Sept. 26 that the sailor had died the day before in a training accident.

Information that he was forced to undergo the unusual fights did not reach Hamada and Vice Defense Minister Kohei Masuda, the ministry’s top bureaucrat, until mid-October.

Hamada blamed the MSDF and bureaucrats in his ministry for the tepid reaction, telling reporters it is “an extreme problem.”