Coast Guard upgrade under Japan's economic stimulus
Service getting new ships and aircraft to cope with increasing pressures from island disputes
Julian Ryall in Tokyo
The first tranche of economic stimulus measures unveiled by the Japanese government on Friday will include billions of yen for new ships and aircraft for the Japan Coast Guard.
The cabinet approved a 423 billion yen (HK$41 billion) stimulus package as it tries to jump-start the national economy, which has slipped as a result of the effort required to get the country's northeast back on its feet after the earthquake and tsunami in March last year.
The funds are to be spread across the national economy, but the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, which has authority over the Coast Guard, is expected to request 72 billion yen to upgrade its equipment.
Coast Guard authorities had been expected to benefit from a financial boost in next year's regular budget, which takes effect only in April, but the funding was brought forward because of the increased pressures the service is now facing as it tries to simultaneously monitor the activities of all the Chinese ships in the waters surrounding the Senkaku Islands, which China calls the Diaoyu Islands, in the East China Sea southwest of Okinawa.
Senior Coast Guard officials have expressed concern at a shortage of ships and trained personnel as it is increasingly having to devote more resources to patrolling the area.
At times, patrol vessels have had to monitor as many as 13 Chinese government ships close to the islands, while the service also used water cannons against a fleet of Taiwanese fishing boats that had intruded into Japanese territorial waters.
Officials said they feared the Coast Guard would become so stretched that it would not be able to carry out all its duties, including search and rescue operations for ships in distress.
The increased funding also serves to send a message to Beijing and Taipei that Tokyo is stepping up its monitoring of the disputed islands. Of the total stimulus package, some 16.9 billion yen is being sought for four new 1,000-tonne patrol vessels and three other state-of-the-art vessels. More funds will be spent on three helicopters able to operate in bad weather.
In addition to the extra spending, the Coast Guard has seen a surge in applications to join the service. Applications to its academy, a university-level institute in Kure, Hiroshima prefecture, have gone up 50 per cent to 16,783.
Young people are increasingly seeing the Coast Guard's work as glamorous and exciting, partly because of the confrontations off the Senkakus, but also due to the popularity of the movie Brave Hearts Umizaru, which depicted the Coast Guard's response to the disasters in the northeast last year.