Missing tour boat found off Hokkaido

A tourist boat that went missing six days ago with 26 people on board was found off the coast of Hokkaido on Friday, the Japanese coast guard said.

The name “Kazu I” was confirmed on the boat’s hull, he said. So far, the bodies of 14 people have been found since contact with the 19-ton boat was lost on April 23 while touring Hokkaido’s Shiretoko peninsula.

Reports on Thursday emerged that the chairman of the tour boat operator repeatedly forced ship captains to leave despite high waves, sources with knowledge of the company’s business said.

While the exact cause of the fatal accident remains unclear, the bodies of three men wearing life jackets were found the same day in the waters off the east coast of the Shiretoko Peninsula, roughly opposite the spot where the 19-tonne Kazu I made its first rescue call, according to the Coast Guard.

The sources said the operator, Shiretoko Yuransen, based in the town of Shari, was known to run frequent sightseeing tours despite the risk of bad weather.

At a press conference on Wednesday, Seiichi Katsurada, the operator’s chairman, admitted that his decision to allow the boat to depart on the condition that its captain turn around if the seas become rough was “mistaken”.

The sources said Katsurada grew angry when captains working for the company canceled tours or hesitated to sail, citing safety concerns, even before the fatal incident.

In Tokyo on Thursday, Transport Minister Tetsuo Saito responded to the president’s remarks at the press conference by saying, “It is impossible to have such a condition (to drive a boat).”

“I believe (Katsurada) lacked a sense of belonging and responsibility,” Saito said, criticizing the president’s inadequate response to the passengers’ families.

The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism has set up a task force to investigate the company’s tourism operations, including whether there were any shortcomings.

The Coast Guard is investigating the incident with the possibility of building a case against the operator for professional negligence resulting in death and endangering traffic.

According to Shiretoko Yuransen’s rules, he must cancel tours when wind speeds are expected to exceed 28.8 kilometers per hour and waves are likely to reach a height of 1 meter, the sources said.

A weather warning for waves over 3 meters was issued in Shari 20 minutes before Kazu I sailed at 10 a.m. on the day of the accident.

A captain of another tourist boat operator in the area said the captain of the missing boat, Noriyuki Toyoda, often complained about the president’s coercive attitude.

“I have to go because I was told so,” the captain said, quoting Toyoda.

Search operations involving aircraft and ships are continuing for the 12 people still missing.

Kazu I disappeared on Saturday after leaving Shari port at 10 a.m. despite a strong wave warning to sail along the peninsula, designated a World Natural Heritage Site in 2005 and home to many rare species of animals and plants.

Before contact was lost, the boat, consisting of the 54-year-old captain and a deckhand, told the operator around 2 p.m. that the vessel was listing at 30 degrees, according to the coastguard.

The incident happened ahead of the Golden Week holiday in Japan through early May.

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