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The Coast Guard Agent Who Tried To Rescue Japan: A Humble Hero

ByStephanie Nakajima

Mar 2, 2011

Mr. Masaharu Isshiki (一色正春元海上保安官), the former Coast Guard official who released a classified videotape of the Chinese boat incident on Youtube last December, held a press conference at the FCCJ on February 14th. The tape provided clear evidence that the Chinese vessel acted as the aggressor in the situation. This is a revelation that embarrassed the Japanese government, as it potentially bolsters previous accusations that Japan acquiesced to China’s might for fear of economic repercussions.

Masaharu Isshiki, the former Coast Guard agent who blew the whistle on the Senkoku Incident. He has become a folk hero in Japan

Isshiki, who had been studying since he was 15 for the career he has just sacrificed, likened the role of the Coast Guard to a “national border guard”; the Guard is responsible for patrolling Japan’s vast territorial waters and executing rescue operations. Upon delivering a few ceremonial opening statements and a brief description of his duties while a Coast Guard official, he immediately breached the problem of Japan’s several territorial disputes with other nations, and in particular the most recently problematic claim over the Senkaku islands; “a certain nation has begun to take action in that area…some people can say this country has even started an invasion process”. While withholding clearly articulated reasons, he said that this threat essentially led him to release the video. When pressed further to defend his defiance of orders, he stated: “it became clear what I should do when I weighed that fact (that it was a government directive) against the fact that this is something that would benefit the Japanese people”.

Isshiki also expressed concern over the growing number of residents who, if Japan is apprehended by force, see themselves as willing to resort to the use of force as well. On this point he lingered, strongly affirming his “deep-seated belief” that if a party has territorial claims that “words and evidence” should be used to solve the issue; “as you know, the world has experienced great tragedies in the past and as a result (we) have put together different ways to resolve international conflicts without resorting to force”, he says, citing the International Court of Justice as an example.

Isshiki ended his speech with two requests for the foreign press. Firstly, that if a conflict arises between Japan and another nation that “not only are the reasons of the other country” covered by the media, but also “the thoughts of the Japanese population on the matter”. He points out that the humble and reserved nature of the Japanese people, often considered “a beautiful part of the national character”, has been misconstrued by the international community as an inability to assert their own rights and claims, which “has led to unfortunate interpretations of Japan in the past”.

He prefaced his second request by noting the increasing presence of international journalists in Japan’s media landscape; “many Japanese have started looking to the foreign media to find out about events in their own country”, citing as an example last year’s demonstrations, which many national media outlets chose not to cover.

He observes that the Japanese are awakening to the impartiality of certain news organizations, and becoming more aware of their many new source options. He presented this as a business opportunity for the foreign press, encouraging them to gain the respect of the people by providing consistently objective reporting.

After this, questions were taken, many too inane to be reported here. Isshiki-san was clearly more intelligent and witty than many of the reporters who spoke to him, cracking jokes and asking some reporters to break down the questions into ones that were possible to answer. It should be noted that Japanese governor Ishihara Shintaro, who attended with his entourage spoke publicly to him saying: “As a representative of the Japanese government, I’d like to express my greatest respect and appreciation for your actions. A person who acts on behalf of the Japanese people…should not be subject to persecution of the government.”

When a press member in her question referred to his actions as “heroic”, Isshiki made mention of it in his response, saying he didn’t think what he did merited the description; “I didn’t risk my life to do this. I like my life.  I don’t want to risk it so easily. Some years ago, most Japanese ago would consider this a normal response and I am slightly concerned that the Japanese people have begun to lose that sense of normality. What I desire more than anything is for Japan to become a country where this kind of action is considered the right thing do by any concerned citizen.”

Isshiki’s book, to which he directed pesky reporters several times during his speech, Why I Did This: The Confessions of Senkoku 38 (何かのためにの告白)is now on sale. It’s worth a read. The final three lines of his book are a moving call to social action.

It’s time to throw away the idea that “as long as I’m okay, that’s enough.” It’s okay for people to live only for themselves, but it’s also a good thing to live for some higher purpose.  If everyone who reads this book, comes away with a little sense of that, and lives that way, maybe things will change.

Stephanie Nakajima

Contrarian philosopher, half-woman, half-Japanese, all dolphin.

11 thoughts on “The Coast Guard Agent Who Tried To Rescue Japan: A Humble Hero”
  1. The video I’ve seen shows the opposite: the Japanese Coast Guard ship turns sharply, directly into the path of the Chinese fisherman.
    Am I looking at the wrong clip? Have a look yourself here:
    Be sure to observe the sky and clouds as a reference point. It will be obvious to you that the the much faster, armed, fully outfitted Coast Guard cutter turns right into the path of the slower, rusty, unarmed fishing boat.
    Thirdly, at 1:18 in the clip, observe the Chinese trawler”s wake. It’s almost perfectly straight. From the Japanese cutter’s point of view, if the trawler had veered, you would see a zig or zag in the wake.
    Should I be surprised you bought the Japanese propaganda line on this? I mean, Ishihara Shintaro says so… lol

  2. Wes,
    It wasn’t a simple fishing boat. I’m loathe to swallow Japanese propaganda. Yes, I’m no big fan of Governor Ishihara Shintaro but sometime he actually tells the truth. I’ve read Isshiki’s book. I believe that he’s telling the truth.
    I could be wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time.

    1. Giles-san
      Thanks for pointing that out. Also, I learned that the word “wake” is more than just an Irish funeral or being conscious. “a trail of disturbed water or air left by the passage of a ship or aircraft.” That’s I guess where the metaphorical usage comes from.

  3. Gilles: I am missing your point. The wake will always be “fully behind” any ship, unless it turns full circle. Indeed, if two ships are running parallel, depending on the angle of the video, you should not be able to see much of the ship being filmed’s wake. Only when the Japanese cutter turns in front of the trawler can we see a long view of the trawler’s wake.
    Or am I misunderstanding your description?
    I’m certainly no expert on ships or wakes or the disputed islands or how Coast Guards operate. And my predisposition is to assume that Chinese nationalists are a bit crazier and more rabid than Japanese nationalists, though I am not saying that’s necessarly the case with this YouTube boat rub up…

  4. Thanks for posting. Great site.

    But I have to say, this article seems way too cute to me.

    Under the photo, it reads “Masaharu Isshiki, the former Coast Guard agent who blew the whistle on the Senkoku Incident.” Surely, this is lazy writing.

    Whistle-blowers reveal crimes being committed by their organisations. Isshiki did not do this. He tried to promote a particular political position regarding state security in support of the actions of his organization.

    There is no mention of the wider context that Japan has a dark history of, well, let’s just say … problems arising from uniformed personnel taking matters into their own hands due to a belief in some abstract higher cause (cf. 1930s). Hence the sensitivity.

    No comment on the disturbingly rightist nonsense about the “humble and reserved nature of the Japanese people”, the ” beautiful part of the national character”, the, “Some years ago, most Japanese ago would consider this a normal response ” [really? when exactly? most? how do you know?], and of course, “It’s time to throw away the idea that “as long as I’m okay, that’s enough.” It’s okay for people to live only for themselves, but it’s also a good thing to live for some higher purpose. If everyone who reads this book, comes away with a little sense of that, and lives that way, maybe things will change.” What higher purpose? Surely not that represented by an inter-state peeing contest over a bunch of rocks? (Yes the Jp government was craven. So what? How has your/my life changed?) Not the kokutai again? Do we want to bring back this kind of “moral education” (cf. self-sacrifice for the state) to the schools? We know Ishihara does. We know his agenda.

    So the fact that this internationally renowned racist reactionary governor wanted to get in on the bandwagon is deeply troubling. He may “tell the truth” sometimes, but that is the problem, isn’t it? i.e. when and why does he decide to “tell the truth”? One should ask the more important question: “What is his motivation?”

    In short, we should be more wary when the media represent an act of self-righteous indignation motivated by an underlying nationalistic mythology as the inspired teachings of a latter-day lay buddhist.


    1. Piers,

      I am sincerely confused about the rationale for your statements.

      If calling the Japanese ‘humble and reserved’ counts as a “disgustingly rightist’ statement, as you claim, I’m afraid I, professional and non-professional observers of Japan have been unknowingly brainwashed by the Japanese right since Perry….

      I also hope that calling a part or parts of the my or another culture ‘beautiful’ isn’t condemning either. As an American, I have many, MANY woes about the state of our culture and political MO, but i certainly think that parts of American national character are beautiful. To avoid a tangential argument, I wont list what aspects i find to be admirable, but I hope i can continue to hold these beliefs without fear of this being accused of having a right-wing agenda.

      Speaking of right-wing agendas, I’m not sure how much you know of them, but I think it would be difficult to promote one using ‘words and evidence’, as Isshiki emphasized several times at the conference. He also mentioned the ‘bitter, bitter lessons’ that humanity has had to learn about the use of force, thought I didn’t include that as I had already gone on for a paragraph about this subject. I wonder how many country Japan plans to overtake with the use of words, evidence, and the International Court of Justice.

      Also, if you hold that Japan shouldn’t be worried about invading countries, and that anything more than simply giving up its outer territories (‘just a bunch of rocks’, as you say) counts as a rightist move, i would say that is a little extreme itself.

      Given these facts, I think that any analogizing to previous incidents in Japan’s history (you mention “cf. 1930) of “uniformed personnel taking matters into their own hands” seems pretty groundless, as is the jump you make from Ishikawa’s statement concerning ‘a higher purpose’ and the kokutai/’moral education’.

      I think that to make these ties, you ultimately have to put a lot (too many) words in his mouth.

  5. Stephanie,
    thanks for your feedback!

    To be succinct:

    The question is: does someone in an armed service have the right to undermine the policies of the elected government in order not to prevent crimes but to promote the interests of that armed service and/or his own personal notion of how state security should be managed? Should someone who does so be lionised?

    That the ultra-rightist Ishihara is supportive is also a cause for concern. We know his views of the Chinese (condemned by the UN). Isshiki has not rejected support from those quarters, has he? His discourse clearly feeds into the rightist agenda of domestic regimentation. Whether he himself is rightist, I cannot tell. If not, he should have been much more circumspect in his nationalistic comments. And being rightist doesnt necessarily mean you advocate overseas expansion.

    Mentioning the fact that the article did not mention the wider historical context which explains in part the sensitivity of some of those who disagree with Ishhiki was an oversight, whether or not you agree with the cause for that sensitivity.

    I shall not post on this again, (these can go on forever as I am sure you know), so I will leave you the chance to have the last word as is fair.

    very best wishes,
    ps as a cheeky aside, why are the “foreign media” not lionising Bradley Manning? A true whistle blower!

  6. Piers,
    The answer to your question is: yes.
    When the government lies to the people and/or hides the truth out of cowardliness or expedience, it is the job of anyone who is a citizen to tell the truth. He should be lionized. China (as a government) is a a giant bully that spent 12% more on defense this year than it did last and like the yakuza, they keep picking fights, getting people to back down and then take over the turf.
    PS. Bradley Manning also released information that may have resulted in lethal blowback for innocent people in Afghanistan and other military members. While he may have had good intentions, his execution of it was flawed.
    Isshiki is hardly a right winger or a nutcase. He’s just a guy who did what he thought was right and woke up the Japanese people to the truth of what happened and defended his fellow coast guard brothers in doing so.

    Well argued and well written.

  7. Jake,
    Good try.
    You may be right, to some extent. But it seems to me that you did not respond to the question raised by Piers but to your own. Please double-check what he asked with a bit more of care, if you are really to answer.

    Small things, though they are not related to the point of the discussion…
    – Senkoku incident -> Senkaku incident
    – Senkoku38 -> Sengoku38
    – 何かのためにの告白 -> 何かのために Sengoku38の告白
    – Ishihara is not a representative of Japanese government, nor did he claimed to be in the press conference.
    – Mr. Isshiki did not say that Japanese people in general share such and such beautiful characteristics. But when I read this article, it looked as if he asserted so.
    – Reference to 2.26 was not initially made by Piers, but by the LDP leader Mr. Tanigaki probably, or maybe some of his fellows. The analogy might seem groundless to the professional and non-professional observer. But there are at least a few in Japanese politicians who think the analogy is not too much bizarre, it seems. And Mr. Isshiki said that he felt “honored in a certain sense” to be compared to the military officers who attempted the 2.26 coup.

    Sorry about my bad English.

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