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Japan's battle against pirates goes high-tech

By Hau Boon Lai, Straits Times Japan Bureau, 12 August 2000

Vessels are being fitted with intricate devices that can trip off the alarm system or alert onshore personnel through a mobile phone message

TOKYO -- Japan is going all out against pirates plaguing the sea routes. Its shipping industry has developed two new anti-pirate devices and the Japan Coast Guard has indicated it will send its vessels on patrol more often.

Starting this month, 15 shipping companies have fitted their vessels with the Toranomon, or Tiger's Gate, a device which sounds the alarm when a mooring device, such as a grappling hook used by pirates, is thrown onto the deck of the ship.

The alarm will sound and the floodlights will go on when the tension of a wire strung around the ship is cut or tightened, causing a light-sensitive switch to stop receiving light from a reflector.

According to the Nippon Foundation, a shipping-financed philanthropic organisation which led in developing the device, the Toranomon underwent a successful trial run in Tokyo Bay waters in February. Shippers using the system are monitoring the device to see if further improvements can be made.

The device can be used on various types of ships, from tankers to containers, said a spokesman for the foundation. She added that the foundation was trying to cap the price of the product, when it is ready for the market, at an affordable 100,000 yen (S$1,570).

There has been an increase in the number of pirate attacks on ships plying the Malacca and Singapore Straits, and the waters off Indonesia.

The International Maritime Bureau said 285 pirate attacks were reported last year, the majority of them occurring in South-east Asian waters.

The figures are 40 per cent higher than those for 1998. The attacks in Indonesian waters have doubled and more pirates have armed themselves to the teeth, prompting one British company to offer the services of Gurkha security guards.

A Nippon Foundation survey found that more than 20 Japanese vessels had been victims of pirate attacks in the first half of the year, with more than half of them occurring in South-east Asia.

Nippon Yusen Kaisha (NYK Lines), one of Japan's biggest shippers, earlier this year, developed the Seajack Alarm and fitted it on its fleet of 450 vessels.

If pirates destroy the regular communications systems on these ships, they also trigger off the Seajack, which shoots off a mobile phone message to onshore personnel enabling the company's satellite system to track its whereabouts.

Meanwhile, reports said the Japan Coast Guard had made plans to increase the frequency of its patrols and buy two long-range planes which it said would help to monitor Japanese vessels plying the sea lanes.

The planes will be used for monitoring Japanese vessels and will not be equipped with any weapons, a Coast Guard official said.