A Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer left the Yokosuka base in Kanagawa Prefecture, south of Tokyo, for an anti-piracy mission off the Middle East and Africa.
The destroyer Onami, with a crew of about 200, departed amid mounting concerns about the novel coronavirus, which is raging around the world including the two regions.
The Onami may have to withdraw from the mission if an outbreak occurs on the ship, which has all of what the government calls the three Cs that must be avoided--closed spaces, crowded spaces and close-contact settings.
"It's extremely important to prevent infection with maximum care in order to accomplish our duty," Vice Adm. Hiroyuki Kasui, commander in chief of the Self-Defense Fleet, told the crew before the departure.
The Onami will operate in the Gulf of Aden, which sits between Yemen and Somalia. It will be dispatched for about six months.
The vessel was supplied with 4,000 face masks, government officials said, adding that additional masks will be provided if necessary.
The officials also said an additional 2,500 masks were given to the MSDF destroyer Takanami, engaged in an information collection mission to help secure the safety of Japan-linked ships in the Gulf of Oman and other waters.
The dispatched MSDF ships make port about once in two weeks to be supplied. But Djibouti, where Japan has a foothold, restricts the entry of foreigners. In Djibouti or any other coastal countries, it is likely that the MSDF crew cannot disembark and go to town.
"Disembarkation is the biggest pleasure for those who live in narrow spaces inside a ship," a former MSDF destroyer crew member has said. "It would be stressful if disembarkation is not allowed at all for one month or longer."
Any crew member suspected of catching the coronavirus would be kept inside a medical treatment room for isolation. In the case of the Onami, such a member would be flown to a medical institution in a nearby coastal country on a helicopter mounted on the ship if necessary.
"We are trying to confirm whether medical institutions in coastal countries friendly to us have enough capacity" to accept MSDF members if they become infected, a Defense Ministry executive said. If such capacity is lost, it would be difficult for an MSDF ship to continue its mission if an outbreak occurs aboard.
The spread of the coronavirus could exacerbate poverty in Somalia and elsewhere, possibly leading to an increase in the activities of pirates. In addition, tensions between Iran and the United States are rising again.
At a news conference, Defense Minister Taro Kono said his ministry is examining various scenarios to consider how to respond if infection occurs on any of the MSDF ships off the Middle East.