An ongoing search and rescue operation has so far recovered 11 bodies, including that of a 3-year-old girl.
At a media conference on Wednesday, Shiretoko Pleasure Cruiser president Katsurada Seiichi apologized for the tragedy. "I am truly sorry for the victims and for the people who are still missing," he said.
Katsurada admitted the missing 19-ton boat named "Kazu I" should not have set sail on Saturday morning with rough seas and high winds forecast. "Looking back, it was the wrong decision," he said.
The president's comments come as Japan Coast Guard officials reveal the ship's captain, Toyoda Noriyuki, was being investigated for possible negligence over an incident last June when the same ship ran aground.
Dangerous conditions were forecast
Katsurada shared details of a conversation he had with Toyoda at 8 a.m. on Saturday, two hours before the cruise departed Shari port for a scenic coastal tour off Shiretoko National Park on the northern side of Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost main island.
He said the captain warned there was a possibility that bad weather could develop. But they decided to go ahead because conditions in the morning were fair.
Katsurada asked Toyoda to turn around if the weather changed.
"Kazu I" sent a distress call Saturday afternoon saying it was sinking from its bow. Its last known position was off a rocky coastline subject to strong tides, with high waves and strong winds in the forecast.
Many fishing boats in the area returned to port on Saturday due to the dangerous conditions.
Families of the people who were on board the "Kazu I" are demanding answers. Nudeshima Yu, 34 was one of the passengers. He was due to be married soon. His father spoke to NHK on Wednesday: "My son must have been so scared in the freezing cold sea. What a frightening way to die."
Poor safety record
Japan Coast Guard officials have revealed Shiretoko Pleasure Cruiser was involved in two accidents last year – one of which was the incident in June over which Toyoda was being investigated.
Local sources say the captain was appointed last year after most of the operator's employees left the company. He reportedly had good navigation skills but little experience or training, according to one source.
A separate potential safety breach was detailed by the Shiretoko Pleasure Cruiser president at Wednesday's press conference. Katsurada was informed on Saturday morning that the company's radio antenna was broken. He said he made a repair order, but decided against cancelling the tour as it was still possible to get in contact with crew members using cell phones, or via other operators' radios.
Possible engine failure
Saturday's distress call reported possible engine failure. According to maritime accident expert Kimura Takahiko from Meiji University of Integrative Medicine, that can have catastrophic consequences in poor conditions.
"Boats are vulnerable to waves from the sides," he said. "So they try to keep at a certain angle against the waves when navigating. But if the engine fails they can't do that."
"The fact that the water came in means the part of the boat where the water drains out had probably collapsed. And that likely happened because there was a breach somewhere in the ship."
Investigation amid difficult conditions
While the Shiretoko Pleasure Cruiser president said his firm will cooperate in an investigation, he was unable to offer a detailed explanation about what went wrong. More than half of the passengers are yet to be found, along with the stricken vessel.
Coast Guard officials say they are paying close attention to whether safety protocols were followed as rough seas hamper search and rescue efforts.