Unless we learn from Japan

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Unless we learn from Japan


Nam Jeong-ho

Japan is an island nation, and before it attained its status as a leader in maritime safety, it experienced many disasters as serious as the Sewol ferry incident.

In Sept, 1954, the Toya Maru ferry capsized in the waters off Hakodate, Hokkaido, and 1,155 of the 1,314 crew members and passengers on board died. The ship was sailing despite a typhoon warning. The decision to sail was made because previous typhoons had resulted in little damage. Coincidentally, the storm calmed down when the ship left the port. It was a typical man-made disaster, as those in charge thought that the large high-tech vessel would survive the typhoon. Criticism was especially severe because the national railway corporation, not a private company, owned the ship.

Only seven months later, another railway corporation-owned ferry got into an accident. In May, 1955, the Shiun Maru ferry sank in Takamatsu Port in Shikoku, killing 168 people. This incident is similar to the Sewol ferry tragedy in many ways. The ship had 781 people onboard, including 349 elementary and middle school students. The ship ignored a fog warning, collided with a cargo ship in the thick fog and sank in seven minutes. The victims were mostly children. At a critical moment, some children tried to hold on to souvenirs for their families. They couldn’t access the life vests, and not many could swim. One-hundred students were killed. While people screamed, “get out!” the captain remained in the control room and went down with the ship.

It was also a disaster caused by poor judgment. The rule to steer to the right when approached by another vessel was not followed. Also, the cargo ship was traveling at full speed but it should have slowed down in the fog.

We need to pay attention to how the Japanese government reinforced maritime safety after the two disasters. Standards became strict and sea routes were set for each direction. Ships were renovated so that they could not easily capsize or sink. Swimming pools were built in schools and students are now required to learn how to swim.

Thanks to the changes, the series of maritime disasters in the 1950s did not continue in the next decade and the Japanese government’s efforts didn’t stop there. Their policy focuses on prompt and professional rescues, and last year, the maritime disaster rescue rate was 96 percent.

Tracking the history of disasters in Japan, I became curious as to why Korean authorities didn’t bother to ask for help from Japan, which is nearby and has advanced skills in the field.

A maritime disaster does not always occur near land. It could happen in international waters, and international cooperation would then be necessary. The ramming of the SS Andrea Doria led to what is considered the most successful maritime rescue operation. In 1956, the Italian passenger ship Andrea Doria collided with the MS Stockholm, a Swedish ship, near Massachusetts. Of the 1,701 people onboard, 46 were killed. A French ship got a rescue call and sailed three hours to save passengers. The international community realized the importance of international cooperation and smooth communication. Information exchanges and various collaborative systems between countries are constantly being reviewed. Northern European countries, including Sweden and Finland, are working to prevent and manage maritime accidents in the Baltic Sea.

When the Sewol ferry accident occurred, many countries offered to help. The U.S. Department of Defense announced that a maritime rescue ship was on the move in case Korea requested help. Japan and Russia said that they were ready to send trained divers and special rescue equipment.

Some thought foreign assistance would help the rescue operation. Some families of the victims asked the Coast Guard why foreign equipment was not used.

Perhaps the Coast Guard was afraid that their incompetency would be revealed if the foreign divers were more successful.

When asked why foreign assistance was not sought, the authorities said that they were too occupied with the rescue operation to request assistance from other countries.

One international unit for maritime safety is the Asia-Pacific Heads of Maritime Safety Agencies, which has been attended by Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries officials since 1996.

In July, 2013, the forum held a session in Cairns, Australia and adopted a statement with 23 points.

The most astonishing is the 14th point: “Participants acknowledged the importance of addressing non-conventional vessel safety and noted the importance of a renewed focus on this area, particularly domestic ferry safety.” Despite the report, no special measures have been taken for domestic ferries. Another disaster will happen unless we learn from Japan.

JoongAng Ilbo, May 16, Page 28

BY Nam Jeong-ho

*The author is a senior reporter of international news at the JoongAng Ilbo.
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