Japan faced difficulties in its treatment of the fishing boat’s captain in the 2010 incident where a Chinese fishing boat collided with Japan Coast Guard (JCG) patrol vessels off the Senkaku Islands, Okinawa. Japan arrested the captain without formulating definite legal procedures and was forestalled in its response. Reinforcement of the JCG’s posture to prevent a recurrence has not been completed.
“This case is one that normally calls for an arrest on the spot.” On Sept. 7, 2010, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transportation and Tourism (MLIT), which oversees the JCG, received a report stating that the “arrest of the boat’s captain is warranted.”
The fishing boat had illegally maneuvered and rammed into the patrol ship. Such a case requires an arrest on the spot, according to JCG’s internal regulations. An immediate decision was suspended in order to seek a political decision in view of Japan’s relations with China.
When several Chinese landed on the Senkaku Islands in 2004, the Koizumi administration deported the men after their arrest. The Chinese were charged with violation of the immigration law in 2004. In a similar case in 2010, the Chinese were charged with obstructing government officials in execution of their duties. Then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku and others viewed the footage of the vessels’ collision, judged that it was of a malevolent nature, and decided on an arrest.
In a recording made during his lifetime, Sengoku says that “the JCG did not think about what should be done after the arrest.”
There had been no decision made on a course of action, such as whether to indict the captain after the arrest, or to release footage of the collision, which constitutes evidence. At the outset, there was no draft of a summary indictment, a document which was later shown to China. Without a clear plan of action, the captain was held in custody for the maximum of 72 hours – the period in which a person can be released on decision of the investigation agencies.
After the time limit, the person held in custody cannot be released in principle unless a judge rules that there is no need of custody. The Japanese government was very limited in the actions it could take, even as the backlash from China grew stronger. Sengoku looks back on the incident and says that “neither the ministries nor politicians” had sufficient capacity to respond to actions of the judiciary.
A top government official who was involved in the response says that if the government “released [the captain], it would have been criticized as being weak” but if the government “indicted him, there would have been fierce backlash from China” and their “hands were already tied when the collision occurred.” The official says that the most realistic measure against Chinese boats approaching the Senkaku Islands was for the JCG to drive them away without resorting to force.
Why did the incident occur in the first place? The view that China strategically planned the incident soon disappeared within the Japanese government because the captain was drunk at the time of arrest. At first, the captain had no understanding of Senkaku Islands issues.
The captain reportedly began to claim that the “Senkakus are Chinese territory” after meeting with a Chinese embassy official. Asked about this point later, China replied that “he learned.”
The Japanese government decided that the incident was an “accident caused by a captain under the influence of alcohol.” An extreme act by an individual may occur again at any time.
A JCG insider who has been responsible for the Senkaku Islands says that internal regulations for the patrol of territorial waters were revised, with additions of maneuvers to prevent sudden incidents such as collisions. According to the insider, there is no specific guideline on the course of action after an arrest.
After the 2004 incident, an unofficial summary by a top official in the then-Kan administration proposed that “there is a need to quietly proceed with the reinforcement of JCR’s posture.”
According to JCG documents, China and Japan own 138 vessels and 67 vessels over 1,000 tons, respectively, in 2019. Japan owned more such vessels than China in 2010. Japan has since increased its fleet by over 15 vessels, but the gap with China only grows. Japan is in a more difficult situation compared with 10 years ago, now that Japan must guard territorial waters with fewer vessels than China.