Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba admitted Wednesday that his ministry gave a false explanation regarding its interrogation of the chief navigator of the Aegis destroyer Atago shortly after it collided with a fishing boat on Feb 19, describing the fiasco as "inappropriate." Ishiba told a subcommittee meeting of the House of Representatives Budget Committee that his ministry had not gained approval from the Japan Coast Guard, which is investigating the collision, when it questioned the chief navigator, correcting a statement from Maritime Staff Office chief Adm. Eiji Yoshikawa on Tuesday that the ministry had gained prior approval.
"It was not appropriate," Ishiba told the parliamentary meeting. He added, however, that the ministry did so "in order to secure information about the accident as soon as possible and to explain it externally."
Vice Defense Minister Kohei Masuda also admitted that the ministry has yet to confirm there was a phone call from the MSO to the coast guard notifying it of the MSO's plan to question the Atago navigator, telling a press conference Wednesday night, "The MSO chief should have made a confirmation more carefully."
Masuda also said the ministry did not record what the chief navigator said during its interrogation.
Meanwhile, the 3rd Regional Coast Guard Headquarters in Yokohama said late Wednesday it was told by the Defense Ministry on the afternoon of Feb 19 that the chief navigator had already got off the destroyer when it requested that the Atago's crew not get on or off the vessel.
Ishiba's remarks fueled criticism from opposition party lawmakers, with main opposition Democratic Party of Japan Secretary General Yukio Hatoyama saying the ministry deserves to be criticized for engaging in a "coverup." He also said, "It is inevitable that such action will make the public suspicious."
From the ruling side, Kazuo Kitagawa, secretary general of the New Komeito party, the junior partner of the Liberal Democratic Party in the ruling coalition, also criticized the ministry for questioning the Atago navigator without consulting the coast guard, telling a press conference, "I must say there was a problem."
In an apparent effort to play down such criticism, Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda told reporters that it is normal for "the minister in charge to examine by himself what has happened and it is within the scope of the minister's responsibilities."
"Considering the situation, there may have been things that cannot be helped," Fukuda said. But he also added that "it would have been better" if the ministry had contacted the Japan Coast Guard.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura also said that the ministry should have conducted the questioning after consulting the coast guard, but denied that a coverup had occurred.