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Japan Vents Its Ire at Premier Over Sub Crash

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Perhaps the United States was lucky that Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori continued his golf game after being told that a nuclear-powered U.S. submarine had sunk the Ehime Maru in Hawaii.

For it is Mori who appears to be bearing the brunt of this nation’s anger over the crash that left nine Japanese on board the high school teaching vessel still missing a week later.

There is considerable head-shaking at bold headlines documenting the latest revelations that civilians were at the helm of the sub’s controls. But the Japanese aren’t taking to the streets, as tens of thousands of Okinawans did after the 1995 rape of a schoolgirl involving three U.S. servicemen, or as many Chinese did after the U.S. bombed its embassy in Yugoslavia in 1999.

Unlike those incidents, the Ehime Maru tragedy isn’t viewed as deliberate but rather accidental, however avoidable it may have been.

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“The truth is, it was the submarine’s mistake--that’s for sure now,” sushi shop owner Masanori Watanabe said Thursday from the town of Uwajima, home of the maritime school that was operating the boat. “So we cannot get anything more by blaming the captain anymore. We should not make this case a target for hatred or let it lead to damage in the U.S.-Japan relationship.”

Just last weekend, slicing fish and molding rice for locals who dropped into his small restaurant to talk about the tragedy, Watanabe had voiced doubt that the truth would ever be known. He had speculated that the submarine controllers were showing off for the visiting dignitaries. Now, he said, he’s satisfied that the facts will indeed emerge.

But if Watanabe and other Japanese have become sanguine about the American role in the accident, the mood toward Mori has only worsened. Many have called for his resignation, and his popularity--already at appallingly low levels after a series of gaffes and a no-confidence vote in parliament--has continued to head south. In addition to the uproar over the audacity of continuing his golf game upon hearing of the accident, newspapers focused Thursday on an unidentified business executive who had “lent” Mori the exclusive $400,000 golf club membership.

Mori insists that he did everything he could when alerted of the accident, which was to urge the U.S. to expedite rescue operations.

Businessman Yoshiaki Kawada, 43, who was shopping at a downtown Tokyo bookstore Thursday, said people were projecting their frustrations onto Mori.

“It may seem strange, but it’s really true that we’re angrier at Mori than at the U.S.,” he said. “Maybe it’s the wrong outlet, but that’s the way it is.”

That doesn’t mean that the U.S. has been absolved in the case. The search-and-rescue efforts, in particular, have been criticized. And Kuniko Inoguchi, a political science professor at Sophia University in Tokyo, lashed out at President Bush for not calling Mori directly to apologize after the accident. Instead, Bush apologized in a speech and sent his ambassador to Japan, Thomas S. Foley, to call on Mori.

“The pro-American sentiment you took so many decades to establish here is being lost in a few days over what happened to those schoolboys,” Inoguchi told an American reporter. “You have an accident involving a nuclear submarine being operated with a pleasure boat mentality.”

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Questions about military safety are one thing the U.S. doesn’t need in Japan. Relations are particularly tense on Okinawa, where the bulk of the United States’ 47,000 troops in Japan are based.

“The accident occurred just as we were about to reinforce bilateral ties,” Japanese Foreign Minister Yohei Kono was quoted by ministry officials as telling U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell in a 20-minute phone call Thursday morning in Tokyo. “I hope you will follow this incident with attention and deal with it in a way that sufficiently considers the feelings of Japanese citizens.”

He demanded to know why the two visiting civilians were at the controls of the submarine when it hit the fishing vessel.

Powell reportedly explained that civilians frequently ride on such subs but that he understood that their presence hadn’t caused the collision. He assured Kono that the Defense Department and the Navy are investigating.

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On Thursday, the town council of Chatan unanimously called for the withdrawal of all U.S. Marines on Okinawa and also sought the resignation of their commander. The U.S. military has refused to turn over a U.S. Marine suspected of setting a series of fires in the last month in Chatan, a town of about 25,000. At issue is whether arson is considered a heinous crime; a provision of a bilateral agreement calls for extraditions in the case of heinous crimes such as rape and murder.

Meanwhile, Marine Lt. Gen. Earl Hailston, commander of U.S. forces on Okinawa, stirred up tempers this month for calling local Okinawan leaders “nuts” and “a bunch of wimps” in an e-mail. Hailston apologized to local officials, but they were upset that Washington didn’t take any disciplinary action.


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