High court acquits MSDF officers over fatal fishing boat collision

The Tokyo High Court upheld Tuesday a lower court acquittal of two Maritime Self-Defense Force sailors over a 2008 collision between an Aegis destroyer and a fishing boat that killed two fishermen in waters just outside Tokyo Bay.

The high court turned down an appeal from prosecutors against the 2011 decision by the Yokohama District Court that acquitted Keitaro Ushirogata, 41, and Tomohisa Nagaiwa, 39, who were both lieutenant commanders and were serving as duty officers when the collision occurred in the early hours of Feb. 19, 2008.

The 7,750-ton destroyer Atago, equipped with the Aegis air-defense system, sank the 7.3-ton boat Seitoku Maru in the accident off Chiba prefecture, leaving fishermen Haruo Kichisei, 58, and his son Tetsuhiro, 23, missing. They were proclaimed dead three months later.

At issue was whether the Atago was responsible for taking evasive action and if the deaths were therefore the result of professional negligence on the part of the officers.

While the Yokohama Marine Accident Tribunal, an administrative panel on maritime accidents, ruled in January 2009 that insufficient surveillance by the Atago was the main cause of the collision, the Yokohama District Court said otherwise in May 2011, noting the fishing vessel caused the risk of the collision.

During hearings at the high court, prosecutors argued that responsibility to evade the collision lay with the destroyer.

Defense lawyers argued that the prosecutors, in seeking to portray the officers as guilty, had cited incorrect coordinates for the destroyer.

The Seitoku Maru was in the waters as part of a fishing fleet on its way to catch tuna, while the destroyer Atago had been traveling from Hawaii to Yokosuka port in Kanagawa Prefecture.