School Sought Safe Waters in Sending Vessel to Hawaii


Piracy in the Indian Ocean has led many of this country’s dozens of high schools that teach fishing to reroute their lengthy maritime field trips in recent years to seemingly safer waters near Hawaii.

But it was something far more perilous than piracy that doomed the teaching vessel Ehime Maru near Pearl Harbor on Friday, leaving four students, two teachers and three crew members from the Uwajima Marine and Fisheries High School still missing today.

As families, friends and townsfolk gravitated to the school to wait for news and share their hopes for the missing, the community demanded to know how a sophisticated nuclear-powered submarine could surface at precisely the place on the open seas where the school’s boat happened to be.


“They are supposed to watch out when they come up,” said taxi driver Homare Yamada, referring to the Greeneville attack submarine, which collided with the 191-foot trawler half its length and one-twelfth its weight. “I hope the U.S. will investigate how this could possibly have happened.”

It was the question that all of Japan seemed to be contemplating today. Blared a headline in this morning’s Mainichi newspaper: “Mistake in Judgment or Negligence.” An editorial in the Asahi newspaper was titled “Incredible Accident.” Koji Ishiwatari, publisher of the book “The World’s Warships,” was quoted by the Mainichi as saying, “This cutting-edge submarine is designed to detect the enemy as soon as possible--there’s no way it could miss.”

Unpopular Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori wasn’t spared criticism either for what some said was a slow response: The Asahi noted that he didn’t interrupt his golf game after being advised of the accident but finished nine holes before returning to Tokyo.

Word of the accident spread quickly around this city of 65,000 shortly after the ship sank off Hawaii about 1:45 p.m. Friday--which was about 8:45 a.m. Japanese time Saturday. Students, parents, local officials and townspeople gathered at the three-story school, which is situated on a gulf that leads to the ocean and is ringed by mountains. They watched television as they waited for word, cheering as they recognized loved ones among the stunned and shivering survivors.

A weary Kei Kogane, who has taught fishing for 22 years, seemed almost in a trance Saturday night. He described his colleague, missing teacher Jun Nakata, 33, as “young, more like a big brother than a teacher to his students.” The other teacher still at sea, Hiroshi Makizawa, 37, is “the quiet type, but has a strong sense of responsibility,” Kogane said.

“Waiting is really difficult, but I believe they will come back to the school,” he added.

But there was mounting dread for those who were still missing, especially after nightfall in Hawaii. Nearly continuous TV updates noted that the U.S. was maintaining its search for the nine missing victims with helicopters and boats equipped with searchlights. Those rescued from the four-deck fishing vessel were said to have been at the front of the top deck.


“All I can do is ask the U.S. side to make maximum efforts to find the missing,” Ehime prefecture Gov. Moriyuki Kato said.

One possibility the waiting crowd held on to: The missing might be in one of seven other lifeboats that the ship carried. The survivors were found soon after the crash aboard three of the ship’s 10 orange life rafts.

Some of those rescued told their families in phone calls of hearing a crashing sound and then feeling the ship sinking, according to televised reports. Capt. Hisao Onishi told the Asahi that “the sub emerged suddenly, and there was a shock, as if the engine was directly hit, and then the ship sank in a flash.”

The fishing boat was equipped with an alarm that would sound if a ship was within one to two miles, but it was not designed to detect submarines. A device was on board to detect the presence of schools of fish, but it wasn’t switched on at the time of the accident, newspapers reported.

Teachers, dabbing away tears, fielded a deluge of calls from parents and the media. By midnight, they were still at the school and were planning to continue their vigil through the night in rooms next to the principal’s office, while a swarm of Japanese journalists hovered in a classroom nearby awaiting news.

“I’m strongly hoping they will be rescued,” grim-faced Vice Principal Kazumitsu Joko said about midnight. Earlier, the principal and two board of education members left Shikoku island--the major Japanese island southwest of Osaka where Uwajima is located--en route to Honolulu.


Families of the missing students, faculty and crew members left for the airport on a bus from the school late this morning. The prefectural government was trying to expedite paperwork for the many who did not have passports. Several teachers of the four missing students--Toshiya Sakashima, Yusuke Terata, Katsuya Nomoto and Takeshi Mizuguchi--went along.

Only one of the four missing students was the son of a fisherman, but fishing is key to many of Japan’s local economies--as well as to the soul of this island nation, where raw fish is about as integral a part of the diet as bread is in America.

“Fishing is one of the most important businesses of the city and the prefecture, and considering the future food situation, it will be an important factor,” Vice Principal Joko said. Sea bream and other species also are cultivated in Uwajima, and Japan’s prized pearl beds are nearby.

Though Japanese fishermen have had to go farther afield to find their catches amid stiff competition from other Asian nations, 47 maritime schools thrive. Thirty-three of the schools feature long-distance maritime excursions such as the one the Ehime Maru was on, usually about two months long, as a core part of their curricula. About 20 have ships in the Hawaii area.

The Uwajima school runs three two-month voyages a year. The Ehime Maru, christened in 1996, left Tokyo Bay on Jan. 10 and was to have returned to the Tokyo area March 23. An air-conditioning problem caused it to pull into Honolulu harbor Wednesday, according to the school’s Web site, for a stop that wasn’t originally scheduled. On Friday, it left the harbor at 7 a.m. to travel about 10 miles south to practice tuna fishing, which involves casting large ropes tied with bait and hauling in the huge maguro.

Nearly all high school fishing boats travel in the vicinity of Hawaii these days, erring on the side of caution amid reports of piracy in the Indian Ocean. In addition, the most succulent--and valuable--tuna tends to be found in the Pacific, school officials say.


Still, not all the student voyagers immediately take a liking to the sea. In newsletters after past trips, one student said: “I got seasick as soon as the boat departed.” Another said, “I’m scared of sharks.” But there was also a quote about “the joy of catching the first tuna.”

The Uwajima school’s entrance showcases four glass-enclosed models of the ships it has used since it opened in 1945--including the ill-fated Ehime Maru.

Besides its emphasis on the craft of fishing, the school teaches its 200 students such skills as navigating, operating fishing machinery and evaluating currents and tides.

Outside the school, whose interior courtyard contains small, shallow pools used for fish farming, is a mounted whaling harpoon, donated by a fishery in 1969. Next to the harpoon, which was illuminated Saturday by a canopy of stars, a nearly full moon and television floodlights, is a huge rock on which is painted the school’s credo: “Do not be scared of the sea, but love the sea and explore the sea.”