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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, March 21, 2001

Japanese prime minister visits site of sinking

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By Glenn Scott
Advertiser Staff Writer

On a bright morning off the southern coast of O'ahu yesterday, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori stood on the bow of a sightseeing boat and looked into the cobalt depths of an ocean that hid the sunken Ehime Maru.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, in front of wreath, and Gene Castagnetti, director of the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, pause while taps is sounded after Mori laid the wreath at the Punchbowl memorial.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

Afterward, he said the U.S. government should raise the ship.

Mori, whose tenure as prime minister has been anything but calm, also said that the experience of peering into the sea had momentarily overwhelmed him.

As he beheld the shimmering beauty of the surface, he said, he realized it was the place where the surfacing USS Greeneville submarine had struck the Japanese fisheries training ship, abruptly sinking it and taking the lives of nine students, teachers and crewmen.

That emotional episode was part of a busy eight hours the prime minister spent here yesterday in ceremonial activities during a pause on his return flight from Washington, D.C., to Tokyo. Along with his visit to the Ehime Maru site, Mori and his entourage of about 20 people also stopped to pay respects at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.

At the Ehime Maru accident site, Mori joined four family members of lost victims on the bow of the Navatek 1 in a brief but moving scene as they flung bundles of ho'okupu — blossoms wrapped in ti leaves — onto the water and then watched, their eyes aimed down at the ocean swells or shut tight in grief.

They clutched the ship's wooden railing to steady themselves as the vessel rocked on five- to six-foot swells.

Mori stood in the center of the group, occasionally supporting a family member with a hand on the back or uttering a brief word of encouragement. But he, too, winced more than once to hold in his feelings. After other family members eventually left the bow, which was in view of about 30 journalists accompanying the group, Mori remained there to stare at the horizon and exchange words with Mi-

tsunori Nomoto, father of Katsuya Nomoto, one of four Uwajima Fisheries High School students lost in the sinking.

In a statement in Japanese issued later and translated by his aides, Mori said that the scene had affected him as the deep blue of the water reminded him of the sorrow of family members.

"It reaffirmed my desire to lift the ship out of the sea, which is the strong hope of the families," he said.

Mori's arrival here yesterday came on the day after he met with President Bush to discuss issues that included economic cooperation and U.S.-Japan security concerns as well as the Ehime Maru incident.

He said Bush had assured him that he would continue to press for a thorough investigation and would do "everything he can" on behalf of those who lost family members in the tragedy.

The reference to the families, who are seeking to recover the bodies perhaps trapped inside the ship, appeared to support the Japanese government's call for U.S. efforts to raise the ship, an operation that Navy officials have estimated could take six months and $40 million.

Mori is widely expected to resign from his post sometime this spring.

His popularity, even within his Liberal Democratic Party, has continued to ebb as the government's efforts to restart the economy have sputtered and as scandals involving government officials have undercut public confidence.

The prime minister's own battered political position was further bruised in connection with the Feb. 9 Ehime Maru incident. Many people in Japan said they were outraged not only by the fact that a U.S. submarine had caused the tragedy but also by the news that Mori had failed to immediately halt a golf round after receiving word of the sinking.

Whether Mori or someone new holds the top political office, though, the Japanese government's interest in raising the Ehime Maru is not likely to change, says Sheila Smith, an East-West Center research fellow who specializes in U.S.-Japan relations.

"The change in leadership is not going to change the way the Japanese government is going to approach this," she said yesterday.

Even as the political maneuvering over Mori's tenuous hold on power emerges as the chief issue in Japan, Smith said, the Ehime Maru incident remains symbolically important as Japanese people watch to make sure the United States lives up to its responsibility to the government and to the victims' families.

So far, she said, government-to-government relations in the case have been quite good.

After Mori paid his respects, a school of about two dozen porpoises swam alongside the Navatek 1, leaping and twisting as they played in the ship's wake as it approached shore. A delighted crew member said porpoises appear about once a week, but rarely do so many join in the play.