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FOCUS: Secrecy of MSDF elite unit hampers fatal bullying probe.

TOKYO, Oct. 17 Kyodo

The death of a Maritime Self-Defense Force sailor in what is suspected to have been bullying during training last month sent shockwaves through Japan but the investigation into the case has been hampered by secrecy surrounding the MSDF's elite unit.

The fatal incident occurred during a program last month to train the sailor among others to join the Special Boarding Unit at the MSDF's 1st Service School in Etajima, Hiroshima Prefecture.

The MSDF set up the unit in 2001 as the first elite task force of the Self-Defense Forces trying to emulate similar special operations forces such as the SEAL teams of the U.S. Navy and the Special Boat Service of the British Royal Navy.

The entry of two purported North Korean spy boats into Japanese waters in 1999 prompted the government to form the special unit.

Citing the need for secrecy, the MSDF has released little information about the unit including how many members it has and what kind of training its members undergo.

''Only a very limited number of people know exactly what the unit's members are doing every day even within the MSDF. We don't dare ask,'' an MSDF officer said.

Defense Ministry sources said it envisages securing some 70 members in the unit and its members are believed to engage in drills using helicopters and speed boats as well as diving training.

The 25-year-old petty officer died after doing what the MSDF calls a training fight Sept. 9 but MSDF chief Adm. Keiji Akahoshi has remained tight-lipped about whether the fighting was within the norms of the MSDF training.

''The question of how the fighting training is usually conducted is still under investigation,'' said Akahoshi who heads the Defense Ministry's Maritime Staff Office.

Akahoshi did not even clarify the purpose of the training fight.

Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada reacted sharply to the MSDF's position telling a parliamentary session that there was ''something that went beyond the norms of training'' in the incident.

The deceased sailor was forced to take part in martial-art-style training fights using body and head protection against 15 other MSDF members only two days before he was planning to leave the training program to enter the task force.

The timing prompted many to suspect the ''1-to-15'' training fight had the nature of punishing the sailor.

The father of the sailor has said that the fighting was designed to make him out to be a quitter and his son died due to bullying.

The father became angry upon hearing that MSDF officers including the training instructors told him that the training fights were meant to be ''a farewell present'' to his son.

Akahoshi declined to comment on the claims, while military journalist Tetsuo Maeda said the incident shows that the dishonorable traditions of the old Imperial Japanese Navy still remain even though it is already more than half a century since the MSDF was established.

It was also revealed that another MSDF sailor was also forced to take part in similar training fights against 16 people in May shortly before being transferred to a different unit and having sustained injuries such as broken teeth.

An SDF officer, asking not to be named, said, ''We have dropouts in any organizations. But I don't understand why he (the deceased sailor) had to undergo such a training fight two days before was supposed to leave.''

''If any of my subordinates were to say he cannot continue hard training, I would simply tell him to pack up and leave immediately,'' the SDF officer said.

According to the MSDF, the 15 opponents took turns fighting the sailor for 50 seconds each. After becoming fatigued and groggy, the sailor fell unconscious after sustaining a blow to the chin when he was fighting with his 14th opponent. He died about two weeks after being hospitalized.

The MSDF and the ministry have come under fire over the failure to make public that the sailor died following the series of fights.

''The MSDF tried not to disclose too much information partly because the incident was related to activities of the task force,'' another SDF officer said.

The MSDF simply announced Sept. 26 that the sailor died the previous day in an accident during training.

But the detailed information that he was forced to undergo the unusual fights did not even reach Hamada and Vice Defense Minister Kohei Masuda, the ministry's top bureaucrat, until mid-October.

Hamada blamed the MSDF and bureaucrats of his ministry for the tepid reaction, telling reporters it was ''an extreme problem.''

The fatal incident came to light at a time when the MSDF was trying to restore public confidence following a spate of problems and scandals since last year such as a destroyer-trawler collision which left two fishermen missing and presumed dead, the mishandling of intelligence related to a U.S.-developed Aegis defense system and a fire in the control center of a destroyer.
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Publication:Japan Policy & Politics
Date:Oct 20, 2008
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