Though tensions remain high between Japan and South Korea over territorial and historical issues, the safety of maritime transportation must be maintained irrespective of diplomatic relations, according to a Japan Coast Guard official who monitors maritime communications in the Tsushima Strait.

In the strait separating southwest Japan and South Korea, a Hong Kong-registered tanker carrying 30,000 tons of chemicals collided with a large Bahamian freight ship in Korean territory on Dec. 29 and burst into flames.

The 7th Regional Coast Guard Headquarters in Kitakyushu received reports on the collision and immediately contacted its South Korean counterpart, which dispatched a ship and helicopter to rescue the crew of the tanker.

The 7th headquarters is responsible for rescue operations on the Japanese side of the strait. The South Korean side is under the command of the Busan-based South Regional Headquarters, one of four run by the Korea Coast Guard.

While the coast guards of different countries usually communicate in English, Japan’s 7th headquarters and the South Korean headquarters reached a special agreement to communicate in each other’s languages as much as possible.

In fact, officers of the 7th headquarters received information on the collision late last year in English, but Tsutomu Takahira, 46, became aware of the accident from Korean-language radio reports issued by the crew of the freighter. Takahira learned the language on his own initiative.

In late January, a small South Korean boat was drifting in strong winds and landed on rocks off Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture. Four South Korean crew members calling for help were in a state of panic because they could speak neither English nor Japanese. Takahira then spoke to them in Korean and helped them calm down.

Japan Coast Guard officers monitoring ships sailing through the Tsushima Strait work in three shifts around the clock. Since each shift has only one Korean-speaking officer, Takahira and the two other Korean speakers remain constantly on alert when on duty.

Officers of the Japanese and South Korean regional coast guard headquarters have never met each other in person. But they often converse with each other in both languages and maintain smooth communication, which is more important than anything else in rescue operations in the sea, Takahira said.

Political tensions between Japan and South Korea and how they are reflected by public sentiment on both sides “have nothing to do and must not have anything to do with the safety of navigation,” Takahira said. “I believe our counterparts are like-minded.”

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