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The Battle of Amami-Oshima – also known, less catchily, as the “Spy Ship Incident in the Sea Southwest of Kyushu” – is not one of Asia’s better-known confrontations, but it’s certainly one of the more bizarre. In the early hours of 22 December 2001, a group of Japan Coast Guard (jcg) boats found themselves embroiled in a high-speed chase and six-hour shootout with a North Korean vessel close to the Japanese island of Amami-Oshima. A thousand rounds of ammunition were used during the gunfight, and at one point the North Koreans started firing handheld rockets. Events came to a dramatic end when the North Koreans appeared to blow themselves up and their boat sank. The grainy coast-guard footage makes for fascinating viewing, a surreal front seat for a terrifying encounter complete with panicked shouting and explosions. If it weren’t for the fact that it really happened, it would make a suitably implausible opening for a James Bond or Jason Bourne film.

The North Korean boat was raised a couple of years later, identified as a spy ship masquerading as a trawler, and is now on display at the jcg’s museum in Yokohama. The bullet-spattered cabin of one of the coast guard vessels is a centrepiece at the Japan Coast Guard Academy’s museum in Kure. It reminds students that their jobs will involve more than tooling around the coast keeping errant pleasure boats out of trouble.

“It’s a 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week job – we’re always on call,” says Haruo Minami, commanding officer at the jcg’s Hiroshima Air Station. It’s also a transient life, with most postings lasting only two, or at most three, years. Commander Minami has been sent to 15 places in 35 years, from Hokkaido in the freezing north of Japan to Okinawa in the semi-tropical south. “It’s a tough job wherever you go,” he says. “We have to go out regardless of the weather.”

Founded in 1948 as the Maritime Sea Agency, the Japan Coast Guard was given its more internationally recognisable moniker in 2000. Headquartered in the bureaucratic enclave of Kasumigaseki in Tokyo, the jcg comes under the purview of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism. Its remit: patrolling Japan’s coastal waters; search and rescue; protecting the marine environment; mapping the ocean; and, crucially, maintaining order on the sea, which means dealing with everything from illegal fishing and drug trafficking to piracy and counterterrorism. It’s a complex role in a diplomatically sensitive part of the world, funded to the tune of ¥177,961m (€1.8bn) annually, with 448 vessels and crafts, 27 airplanes and 46 helicopters.

They are impressive figures, but the jcg has its work cut out. Japan may rank a lowly 61st in the world in terms of land area (380,000 sq km) but its territorial waters and economic exclusive zone are 12 times as large – among the biggest in the world. Those waters include some of the most hotly contested scraps of territory in East Asia: Takeshima (or Dokdo to the Koreans) on the Japan Sea side; Okinotorishima to the far south; the Kuril Islands to the north; and the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. Several jcg members – while loath to make an official complaint – point out the comparison between their personnel numbers (12,000) and those of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police (40,000).

The Self-Defence Forces, or sdf, (see Monocle’s debut issue) also patrol Japan’s coast but it’s the jcg – with the power to arrest at sea – that frequently finds itself at the frontline. The jcg divides Japan into 11 regions, each one with its own local hq and an assortment of air stations, hydrographic observatories and traffic centres. Some regions are more fraught than others. The current flashpoint is the Senkaku Islands, a remote group of rocky islets that are also claimed by China (who call them Diaoyutai) and Taiwan (who call them Tiaoyutai). It’s a long, drawn-out history – with the rich fishing waters and possible oil and gas reserves playing their part – but the islands are administered by the Japanese from the Okinawan island of Ishigaki.

In recent months, Chinese and Taiwanese boats have entered the waters around the Senkaku. Japan-China relations are something of a tinderbox at the best of times but the Senkaku issue has intermittently pushed it to uncomfortable levels of tension. When a Chinese trawler collided with jcg vessels in September 2010 and the captain of the boat was arrested, a huge diplomatic stink erupted. The problem continues to taint bilateral relations.

In the course of a long career, a jcg officer can expect a posting to Ishigaki, from where the jcg keeps a close eye on the Senkaku Islands. “We’ve seen Taiwanese fishing boats,” says Commander Minami of his Senkaku patrols. “Of course, they’re not supposed to be there. We tell them to leave.”

Earlier this year, the government submitted bills to the Diet, proposing to revise the jcg law and the law on navigation of foreign ships. The idea behind the changes is to beef up the powers of the jcg in the face of increasing incursions into Japan’s territorial waters. With isolated places such as the Senkaku and Okinotorishima clearly in mind, the revisions would give the jcg the power to arrest anyone who tries to land on a remote island; they currently have to call the nearest police, possibly hundreds of kilometres away, who then have to be transported to the island by boat or helicopter. It would also give the jcg the authority to order boats to leave Japan’s waters without inspection, which would allow for a quick expulsion even in rough weather, when inspections might be delayed.

The air station at the 6th Regional Coast Guard Headquarters in Hiroshima has 43 staff, including 12 in training. From here they look after the relatively peaceful, if congested, Inland Sea, where infringements are more likely to involve domestic poaching than territorial infractions. “We’re dealing mostly with illegal fishing and people dumping waste into the sea,” says executive officer Toshikazu Kishita. “Real fishermen know who the culprits are – they want us to arrest them.” They are also called out for collisions, as well as boats or swimmers in distress. “People love to fish around here, even in bad weather,” says Kishita. “You’d be amazed how often they forget about the time and find the tide has turned.”

The Hiroshima Air Station has three helicopters and a Cessna 206F plane. The Bell 412 looks like a regular helicopter but for the searchlight on its base, a hoist on the side, the infrared light that allows the team to search in the dark and a speaker that is used to relay warnings. The helicopters are gleaming, but “it’s not just for show,” says Kishita. “After flying low on patrol they’re covered in salt spray, so it’s about maintenance.”

The jcg airplane pilots train with the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force (jmsdf), a branch of the sdf; helicopter pilots go to the coast guard training centre in Sendai. Chief pilot Haruo Ozaki is one of the best with 38 years and 13 postings behind him. “My favourite was Ishigaki,” he says. “In one year we made 100 trips, taking people from remote islands to hospital in Okinawa.”

After the devastating tsunami that struck the north-east of Japan in March last year, the jcg went straight into action rescuing 360 people, 279 of them by air. It was a challenging time. The jcg air station at Sendai Airport – which was completely submerged – lost two planes and two helicopters. The jcg crew stationed at Haneda Airport in Tokyo had to go north to help out.

In Kure, the elite students – future jcg officers – are expected to cover all the bases: everything from diving, shooting and kendo to international law, mathematics and meteorology. They spend four years in the classroom, another six months working on a specialised area and a further three months going around the world on a training ship: the Kojima. At the end of it all, 40 graduates emerge each year with a degree and their first assignment aboard a patrol vessel as a junior-grade officer. The academy occupies a peaceful spot overlooking the water, on the site of an old naval base. The clunking of shipyards around about is a reminder of Kure’s history as a shipbuilding centre. The students live in close proximity to each other, studying in classrooms, eating in the canteen and sleeping in spotless shared dormitories – good preparation for life at sea. Out of 164 students, 22 are women; they train with the men but sleep in their own block.

The hotshots of the jcg are the divers, whose profile has rocketed with the appearance of the Umizaru (Sea Monkeys) films, a series of action blockbusters based on a bestselling manga and starring actor Hideaki Ito as jcg officer Daisuke Senzaki. Frequently seen in a wetsuit fresh from a heroic rescue mission, Ito has done the image of the jcg no end of good. The fourth instalment, Brave Hearts, was released this summer, perfectly timed for the holidays. The previous two films made ¥15bn (€157m) between them, so expectations are high.

“Of course it’s exaggerated – it’s entertainment,” says Toshikazu Kishita, assessing the Umizaru films. “The real job isn’t quite as spectacular but we do want to save people too.” Everyone agrees that the publicity has been good for recruitment. “Before this, ordinary people didn’t know what we did or how we differed from the sdf,” says Ozaki.

The real divers don’t disappoint. The academy instructor is an intimidating teacher but the kind of man you’d want on your side in a firefight. “It can be a tough job,” he says. “The hardest time was after the Kobe earthquake [in 1995], when we were searching the coastline for missing people.” Here in Kure he is watching a group of students being put through their paces in the pool by three visiting divers, whose ship – Kurose – is docked nearby. “It’s important that the students learn physical strength and basic coordination,” he says. Actor Hideaki Ito came here for diving training; his wetsuit takes pride of place in the museum.

Some students join the cutter crew, the heavy wooden rowing boat that is no longer used in day-to-day work but kept on in the spirit of team-building and nostalgia. Under the eye of an instructor who was a crewmember in his student days the rowers assemble at the end of the day to head out to the water. It’s hard work, pulling together, shouting in unison. That’s why they still do it, according to the instructor. “It’s very physical and it requires people to work as a team.”

The broad remit of the jcg requires them to cooperate with a range of organisations and countries. They share information on a number of issues, including environmental crimes: illegal substances dumped at night; boats abandoned without their names and numbers; smuggling; and human trafficking. jcg crews are also dispatched to Southeast Asian waters to work alongside coast guards from other countries. With national boundaries in the sea, it’s essential to maintain order to ensure security and keep shipping lanes open.

In Japan’s backyard further north, the jcg is working to build on multilateral relations, holding joint exercises and working with counterparts from China, Korea and Russia – the very countries that they’re arguing over territory with. The North Pacific Coast Guard Forum brings them all together, along with the US and Canada, and commits members to collate information and enforce maritime rules.

For all the government-level diplomatic bluster to the contrary, the coast guards know that they need a good working relationship with their neighbours. “The waters around Japan involve other countries too,” says Commander Minami. “We share the sea – we have to work together.”

12,671 members

121 3 patrol vessels
236 3 patrol craft
63 3 Special guard and rescue craft
13 3 Hydrographic survey vessels
12 3 Lighthouse tenders
3 3 Training boats

Air planes: 27
2 3 Gulf V
2 3 Falcon 900
8 3 Bombardier 300
4 3 Saab 340
9 3 Beech 350
1 3 Beech 200
1 3 Cessna 206

Helicopters: 46
2 3 Super Puma 225
3 3 Super Puma 332
11 3 Agusta 139
3 3 Sikorsky 76
5 3 Bell 412
19 3 Bell 212
3 3 Bell 206

×The Briefing


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