Photo/IllutrationA patrol vessel of the Japan Coast Guard, foreground, calls on a Chinese government vessel, background, that has intruded into Japanese territorial waters off the disputed Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture in August to leave quickly. (Provided by the Japan Coast Guard)

Tasked with ensuring the security and safety of the high seas, a Japan Coast Guard officer lamented having to command an aging vessel that once stalled immediately after leaving the quay.

As the crew quickly tossed a rope to the dock to halt the ship, the breakdown did not result in a serious mishap.

“Although we are supposed to ensure safety on the seas, I nearly caused an accident myself,” said the officer, who once served as captain of the aged craft in western Japan, in an interview with The Asahi Shimbun.

The former captain also spoke of having his old ship suddenly stall while it was operating at high speed while on patrol.

“I have experienced many minor incidents,” the officer said.

Repeated intrusions by Chinese government vessels into Japanese territorial waters, along with an expanded patrol area, are forcing the Coast Guard to continue using outdated patrol vessels, hampering its operations.

The service lives of 129 patrol vessels of the Coast Guard, or 35 percent of all its 366 patrol craft in operation, have already ended, The Asahi Shimbun has found.

That is partly because a series of vessels built in the 1970s and 1980s after the fisheries jurisdiction was expanded to 200 nautical miles have simultaneously reached the end of their operating lives.

Serious problems associated with old age, such as engine failures and water leakage, have been reported for those vessels. But little replacement work has been carried out so far, as Tokyo has to allocate larger budgets for security activities around the disputed Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture, which are also claimed by Beijing.

As of April, the Coast Guard owned 128 midsize and large patrol vessels that can navigate far from shore and 238 smaller vessels designed to patrol along coasts. All of those ships usually go out of service in 20 to 25 years.

Among these, as much as 40 percent of smaller patrol ships have reached the end of their service lives.

It is estimated that 142 small patrol vessels, or 60 percent of those ships, as well as 32 midsize and large vessels, or 25 percent, will be in need of replacement in five years. That means 50 percent of all types of patrol vessels will become outdated by that time.

The oldest vessel that the Coast Guard currently operates is the Takatori. The 325-ton vessel, which measures 46.5 meters long and is 38 years old, is still in operation at the Coast Guard’s Yokosuka Office, though 13 years have passed since its service life ended.

The Coast Guard is involved in various operations from sea rescues to crackdowns on illegally operating fishing boats. Aged patrol craft suffer from more failures and require more time for repairs. Devices mounted on those vessels are also old-fashioned, so it is difficult for them to travel at high speeds. Many parts of such craft have corroded as well.

According to Coast Guard officials, the agency is dealing with the issue by deploying patrol ships in a manner so that many of the aged ones are not stationed together in certain areas.

Around the 1980s, the Coast Guard built more than 100 vessels in line with the expansion of its operation zone.

Japan’s territorial waters were widened from three nautical miles to 12 nautical miles, when the territorial sea law was introduced in 1977. The area subject to the state’s fisheries jurisdiction was also expanded to 200 nautical miles, as the law on temporary measures concerning fishery waters took effect the same year.

While many of the vessels constructed at the time have reached the end of their service lives over the last 10 or so years, few have been replaced due to insufficient shipbuilding capacity and limited funds.

In addition, since the Japanese government in 2012 purchased three of the Senkaku Islands, including Uotsurishima island, from private ownership, Chinese government vessels have been aggressively trespassing in waters around the islets.

Thus, as Tokyo had to put its top priority on building cutting-edge patrol vessels to be deployed around the Senkakus to protect the islands, it has become difficult for it to allocate sufficient funds to replace aged craft elsewhere.

A budget to deal with 19 old vessels was secured as of April this year, but that only means just 15 percent of aged craft will be replaced.


In addition to having engine problems, aged Coast Guard vessels also frequently suffer from water leakage inside due to corrosion of pipes or other reasons.

“In one case, as soon as we finished a temporary countermeasure against a water leak, water began leaking from another point,” said another former Coast Guard ship's captain.

In another instance, the officer had to respond to a rescue call after dealing with water leakage by simply winding a bicycle tire tube around the leaky pipe.

“We will not be allowed to lessen the quality of missions just because the ships are old,” said a Coast Guard official, referring to the aging of patrol vessels.

Coast Guard bases across the country are demanding new craft be introduced. But the agency cannot allocate sufficient money as it has to put more focus on protecting the Senkakus.

“Should Chinese officers succeed in landing on the islands, it could pave the way for Beijing to put the islands under its effective control,” said a senior Coast Guard official, expressing a sense of crisis.

To prevent that, the Coast Guard operates more vessels than Chinese ships in waters around the Senkakus. It also allocated larger budgets to introduce dedicated vessels to protect the islands--its top priority--over the last few years.

As a result of those efforts, a permanent system was established in February to defend the Senkakus with 12 patrol craft.

However, the current system is designed to deal with around five Chinese vessels. Thus, Tokyo still needs to send additional ships from other areas to the Senkakus if 15 or so Chinese ships approach the islands, as occurred in August.

The latest, high-performance vessels have been sent to the Senkakus to date, but a mid-level Coast Guard official expressed concern saying, “If an increasing number of vessels get old without being replaced, we will have to send aged craft with a higher risk of failures on difficult missions.”

Meanwhile, the number of vessels owned by the China Coast Guard has been rising steadily. A Japan Coast Guard estimate shows the number of Chinese ships of 1,000 tons or more exceeded that of Japan around 2013 and increased to 120 by 2015, double that of Tokyo.

“We have to carefully watch not only over the Senkakus but other waters for cracking down on illegal fishing boats and other purposes,” said a senior Japan Coast Guard official. “(The aging of patrol vessels) could negatively affect the security of both the Senkakus and other waters.”