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The collision between a U.S. nuclear-powered submarine and a Japanese fisheries training ship Friday off Oahu Island, Hawaii, was simply unbelievable. It is a sad fact, however, that the collision, which is believed to have been caused by negligence on the part of the submarine, sank the ship, leaving nine students and instructors missing and injuring a dozen others.

The ill-fated ship, the 499-ton Ehime Maru from Uwajima Fisheries High School in Ehime Prefecture, had 35 students and crew members on board when the 6,080-ton USS Greenville smashed into it. The tuna-catching exercise off Hawaii was a traditional program that had continued for more than two decades. For most of the students, it was their first training voyage abroad.

The governments of the two nations take the accident seriously, of course. The Japanese government set up an emergency liaison office at the Cabinet’s crisis-management center and sent the parliamentary secretary for foreign affairs to Hawaii. U.S. President George W. Bush immediately issued instructions to the National Security Council and on Tuesday night he apologized for the accident in a direct telephone call to Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori.

Judging from reliable reports, it is certain that the USS Greenville, based at Pearl Harbor, was responsible for the collision. The captain of the Ehime Maru, Mr. Hisao Onishi, told U.S. Coast Guard officials that the submarine had “emerged all of the sudden” and hit the boat. The question is why the sub was unable to avoid the crash, given its state-of-the-art equipment, including sophisticated sonar systems. According to military experts, a submarine, when rising to the surface, uses sonar to check whether there are any vessels or obstacles in the vicinity. It is quite possible that the Greenville neglected to fully employ this basic precaution.

In fact, U.S National Transportation Safety Board officials investigating the collision reportedly revealed that the submarine used only passive sonar before surfacing instead of its more sophisticated active sonar. Passive sonar is used to listen to sounds made by surface ships or underwater objects, while active sonar monitors the echoes from surface ships and other targets of pulses of sound beamed through water. The NTSB had recommended the use of active sonar in its safety guidelines, which were issued in June 1989 following a collision between another U.S. nuclear-powered submarine and a surface ship in U.S. coastal waters. Investigators suspect that the failure to use active sonar contributed to the cause of the accident.

Following the accident, the U.S. Navy reportedly ordered all of its ships to conduct checks on navigational safety and to tighten internal discipline. Safety, however, must be a top concern of all vessels, both military and private. Japanese ships should also conduct checks, given the ever-present danger of collisions in congested waters.

This is not the first time that a collision has occurred between a U.S. Navy vessel and a civilian Japanese ship. In 1981, a Polaris submarine and a Japanese freighter collided off Kagoshima Prefecture in a “hit and run” case that caused the Japanese ship to sink. After subsequent investigations established that the collision had been caused by the submarine, the U.S. government paid 255 million yen in compensation to the owner of the cargo ship Nissho Maru.

In Japan there are 50 high schools for fishermen and seamen. An extended training voyage lasting about 90 days is a precious experience for students. It provides them with a golden opportunity to learn firsthand how to catch tuna and to acquire other practical skills. The voyage is also a rare occasion for teachers and students to live and work together on board the same ship.

Waters off the Hawaiian Islands are a favorite training area for Japanese fisheries high schools, in part because of the efficient medical care, maritime-rescue organizations and other facilities available, but also because they are free of security risks such as piracy. Hawaii’s offshore waters, however, are teeming with submarines as well as commercial and private ships. The incident is a tragic reminder that the improvement of accident-prevention rules for open-seas training ships is an urgent necessity.

The tragedy is also a wake-up call for the U.S. Navy. Thoroughly investigating the cause and disclosing the results is urgently required to prevent this tragic incident from affecting overall bilateral relations. This should accompany extensive efforts to search for the nine missing members of the Ehime Maru, who, it is believed, are trapped in the sunken vessel.

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