A tourist boat with 26 crew and passengers including two children went missing in rough waters Saturday while sightseeing around the scenic Shiretoko Peninsula on Japan's northernmost main island of Hokkaido, the Japan Coast Guard said.
The boat "KAZU I" reported to the coast guard it was taking on water around 1:15 p.m., and then told its operator that it was tilting 30 degrees around 3 p.m. before losing contact, the JCG said.
Twenty-two adult passengers and two children were aboard the boat along with two crew members, according to the JCG.
The coast guard, which dispatched a helicopter and patrol boats to the site near the peninsula, said it had not found the boat nor the people on board as of 10 p.m., adding that their fate remains unknown.
The Air Self-Defense Force subsequently agreed to join in the search-and-rescue operation, the coast guard said.
In Tokyo, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism set up a task force on the Hokkaido accident.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida instructed his Cabinet members to "do everything in their power to save lives," a government official said.
According to the JCG's regional station in Abashiri, the KAZU I ran aground in shallow water shortly after leaving port in June last year. No one was injured in that accident.
The latest incident occurred while the boat was cruising off Kashuni Falls, a famous scenic site near the tip of the Shiretoko Peninsula, part of which has been designated as a World Natural Heritage site.
Local tour operators fear a reputational damage as Japan will soon enter the Golden Week holidays through early May.
"It's a big blow," said a 55-year-old man who runs a guesthouse in the town of Shari where sightseeing boats arrive and depart.
High waves and strong winds were observed in the area around noon, according to the local fisheries cooperative. Its fishing boats returned to port before noon because of the bad weather, it said.
The KAZU I departed the port in the town around 10 a.m., according to the transport ministry.
Among companies that operate similar tour boats, only one departed Saturday. "It was forecast that waves would gradually rise. I would not have sailed in today's conditions," a person in the local industry said.
"We have been receiving a lot of calls from the passengers' families. We have to handle it first," an employee at the operator of the KAZU I told Kyodo News.
The passengers and crew were wearing life jackets, the operator said, according to the coast guard.
The peninsula in the northeast of Hokkaido is known as a popular destination for spotting drift ice and was designated as a World Natural Heritage site in 2005. It is a habitat for many rare species of animals and plants.
The boat can accommodate as many as 65 people, according to the website of its operator.