By RYUJI KUDO
The government plans to loosen a ban on private armed guards aboard Japanese ships, specifically to counter piracy off Somalia.
It believes Japanese merchant crews are at a disadvantage because, unlike those of some other nations, they cannot present a visible deterrent or defensive ability while passing waters around Somalia.
The transport ministry plans to submit a bill to the Diet during the current session that would create an exception to a general ban on civilians bearing firearms, a rule which extends to personnel aboard Japan-flagged ships worldwide.
“Pirates target unarmed vessels,” said a ministry official.
Under the law, Japanese-registered commercial vessels in locations around Somalia, such as the Gulf of Aden, the Arabian Sea and the Red Sea, would be allowed to hire guards for the voyage carrying firearms.
The guards would be free to fire warning shots into the air or at the water. And in the event that individuals aboard come under direct threat from attackers the guards could shoot at pirates.
Japan-flagged vessels are subject to domestic laws. The Law to Control the Possession of Firearms and Swords bans individuals from possessing firearms, even with the aim of defense. Thus, armed guards cannot be deployed aboard ships.
In 2011, there were 439 reported cases of piracy worldwide. Of them, 237 took place in the waters around Somalia, up from 111 in 2008.
That same year, Somali pirates took 470 hostages and killed eight people. However, vessels with armed guards aboard were not involved.
Britain, Norway and Spain are among nations that already allow the hiring of private armed guards by the operators of vessels sailing under their national flags. Industry officials have feared that pirates would come to target Japanese vessels if legislation was not introduced promptly.
The Japanese Shipowners‚Äô Association, a body which mainly represents shipping agents, has been pressing the government for action.
Tentatively titled “special measures law for the security of Japanese vessels,” the bill would require shipping companies to inform the ministry of security companies hired for each voyage.
The ministry would examine the contractors’ training and past performance record, and allow deployment as a special exception to the law controlling firearms and swords.
Shipping companies would also be obliged to submit the names of security guards present on each journey.