Kakehashi Trip Report #3: Shipowner Shares Perspective on Industry Response to Somali Piracy

As part of my Kakehashi Project independent research day, I had the opportunity to meet with a senior maritime security officer at a major Japanese commercial maritime shipping line to discuss the role of their industry in the country’s response to Somali maritime piracy. I have tried to capture the major takeaways from our discussion below.

Traditionally, the maritime security officer said that the relationship between the Japanese commercial maritime shipping industry and Japanese and foreign militaries has been unusually weak as a consequence of the considerable losses suffered by Japanese commercial maritime shipping industry during the Second World War. Although not widely known, I was told that more commercial seafarers were killed during the war than Japanese soldiers. As a consequence, the industry remains reticent to draw too close to the Japanese Maritime Self Defence Forces (JMSDF). However, since the passage of Law on Punishment of and Measures against Acts of Piracy (Law No. 55 of 2009), there has been a noticeable change in the willingness of the industry to partner with the Japanese Government, the European Union, NATO, and others to confront the threat posed by Somali maritime pirates. This has only increased following the passage of 2013 revisions to the Japanese Firearms and Swords Control Law, which gave Japanese flagged vessels the right to employ armed guards.

However, the maritime security officer felt that it would be wrong to say that the relations between the Japanese commercial maritime shipping industry and the JMSDF are comparable with those of other major powers. To this day, the industry regularly liaises with the U.S. Navy and the European Union Naval Forces but not the JMSDF. Such correspondence is instead routed through the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transportation (MLIT). While bridges are starting to be built on a personal level between the industry and JMSDF, there remain major barriers that inhibit deep cooperation. In the meantime, the industry relies heavily on the European Union, NATO, and the Combined Maritime Forces for information about Somali maritime piracy.

Nevertheless, the maritime security officer argued that the industry has come a long way in recognizing the need for the Japanese Government to play a leading role in confronting Somali maritime piracy. In 2006, the industry was “not so serious” about the threat posed by Somali maritime pirates and the maritime security officer’s line did not request anything of the government on this account. However, by 2007, their company had established a new team to address the issue and started to talk to the Japanese Shipowners Association (JSA) about the need to engage the government. This followed the Golden Nori incident, which made the industry aware of the seriousness of the threat posed by the Somali maritime pirates. At first, the focus was on the threat of terrorism. However, by 2008, the industry recognized the larger economic security threat posed by the Somali maritime pirates.

At that time of the Golden Nori incident, the maritime security officer held that the Japanese Seafarers Laws (Sen In Ho) were the only laws on the book that addressed maritime piracy. Unfortunately, those laws were weak in that they bundled maritime piracy under the undefined term “serious marine accident.” The industry therefore fully supported the enactment of Law No. 55 of 2009 for two major reasons: 1) it clearly defined what constituted an act of maritime piracy; 2) it conferred specific rights and responsibilities on the Government of Japan to protect commercial vessels from these now defined acts of piracy. Initially, the industry felt that this went far enough. However, by 2011, it was clear that the international military response was not enough. The industry then supported the enactment of 2013 revisions to the Japanese Firearms and Swords Control Law, which gave the commercial shipowners the powers to employ armed guards aboard Japanese flagged vessels. While this was something new in Japan, it was already a generally accepted practice in many countries around the world, which was one of the reasons why the law was able to pass in the Diet.

According to the maritime security officer, the issue of reporting remains contentious in Japan. While the Law No. 55 of 2009, clearly defines acts of piracy, it does so merely for the purpose of restraining the powers granted to the Japanese Government under the law. As a consequence, it remains unclear whether these acts do or do not fall under the serious marine accident reporting requirements of the Japanese Seafarers Laws and thus whether or not the owner and master are obligated to report such incidents to the Japanese Government. Reporting therefore remains a voluntary practice that is defined by company policy and the subjective determination of the master. While the major lines tend to err on the side of caution, there remains no industry standard or requirement. Furthermore, there is no movement in Japan at present to re-examine “serious marine incident reporting” or to place reporting rules on the shipowners or ship management companies in lieu of the masters for a variety of reasons.

However, the maritime security officer confirmed that the increased military activity in the Western Indian Ocean has made the entire Japanese shipping industry aware of the need to be vigilant in reporting such incidents because there are now multiple channels monitoring the situation in the region. A failure to report an incident can therefore be picked up by another channel and shared with the Government of Japan. This has incentivized the Japanese commercial shipping industry to report more incidents than in the past, especially small scale incidents and failed attempts that otherwise would have gone unreported. This in turn ensures that there is far more information in the system about piracy than in the past.

This is the third in a series of reports related to the Japan Foundation’s Kakehashi Visit for Young Public Intellectuals from January 12-22, 2014. The author represented SOAS, University of London and the Federation of American Scientists as part of the Pacific Forum CSIS Young Leaders delegation.

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