Submarine Accident Could Strain U.S.-Japanese Relations

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:09 PM EDT

London ( - Ties between Japan and the United States need not be seriously strained by the weekend sinking of a Japanese fishing vessel accidentally rammed by a submerging U.S. Navy submarine in the Pacific, an expert on the bilateral relations said Monday.

But with the existing sensitivities in Japan over the deployment of tens of thousands of American troops in that country, both countries will need to handle the matter with care, according to Tsuneo Watanabe of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

As relatives of the missing and other survivors awaited word in Hawaii, a Coast Guard search continued Monday, following the accident near Pearl Harbor.

Twenty-six Japanese onboard the fisheries training vessel Ehime Maru were rescued after it was struck by the Los Angeles-class attack submarine USS Greeneville. Nine remain missing and are presumed dead, including four teenage fisheries students.

Although President Bush, senior officials, and U.S. Ambassador to Japan Thomas Foley were quick to express their remorse to Japan, claims that the submarine crew did nothing to save the stricken passengers and crew have received prominent and repeated coverage in Japanese media.

Japan has appealed to the U.S. to salvage the Ehime Maru, in hopes of being able to extract the bodies of those believed to have been trapped inside the hull, lying on the seabed more than 500 meters down.

The 6,000-ton Greeneville was carrying out a drill calling for a speedy surfacing from 400 feet down. A Navy spokesman explained that the drill calls for a vessel to rise to around 60 feet, check the area for hazards, then dive further down before surging to the surface.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the accident, looking into the methods used by the submarine to check the area before rising to the surface.

Japanese news reports quoted the tearful captain of the sunken vessel, Hisao Onishi, as saying the submariners did nothing to help other than lower a rope ladder from the conning tower.

Survivors then had to wait almost an hour for the Coast Guard to provide help, he said.

The Navy has said choppy seas would have made it too dangerous to open the Greeneville's hatches and try to rescue survivors.

The Nihon Keizai Shimbun daily said Monday that bilateral relations would be tested by the way the two countries handled the incidents.

Beyond the tragedy of the event, it said, "the U.S. and Japan must build their relations and their crisis management."

Another national paper, Asahi Shimbun, said the accident would test Bush's ability to manage a crisis with one of its key allies.

Japanese anger, meanwhile, has targeted Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, after newspapers reported that he finished a golf game with friends immediately after hearing about the accident.

"Mori's actions raise questions about his personal attitude toward the collision and the government's ability to respond to a crisis," said Yomiuri Shimbun.

The sinking comes at a time of already strained relations over several incidents involving U.S. troops stationed in Japan.

In the southern island of Okinawa - where more than half of the 47,000 U.S. troops stationed in Japan are based - a soldier was arrested and disciplined last month after lifting a Japanese high school girl's skirt and photographing her underwear.

The incident revived simmering resentment caused by the 1995 rape of a 12-year-old by three American servicemen, and local legislators reacted by passing a resolution calling for the number of U.S. troops on the island to be cut.

In a private email to commanders, the commander of the Marines, Lt. Gen. Earl Hailston, complained that the governor and local officials had done nothing to challenge the resolution. Hailston called the politicians "nuts" and "wimps" for their inaction.

The email's contents somehow made it into the local media, prompting a row and demands for Hailston's removal from his post. He apologized publicly, and the Pentagon said he would not be removed.

Watanabe of the CSIS said the Japanese government will come under strong domestic pressure to demand that the U.S. clarify the causes of the accident and raise the ship.

Already many in Japan had been upset by the prime minister's reaction, he said. "An insincere attitude would provoke the public" even more.

The submarine incident, coupled with the row over the Marine commander's email message, meant "both the U.S. and Japan [will] have to take care of the bilateral issues on security at this moment.

"However, if it is handled in [an] appropriate manner, their impact on the bilateral alliance would be minimal," Watanabe predicted.

This will largely depend, he added, on how transparent the investigation into the accident is, and the extent to which the U.S. military personnel involved accept responsibility.

Secretary of State Colin Powell voiced the hope U.S.-Japanese ties would not be adversely affected by the accident, while Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld raised the possibility of compensation for the victims.

Commander Scott Waddle, the Greeneville's commanding officer, has been removed from his post pending the inquiry.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow