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A Japanese foreign affairs official said Thursday the ministry was reassured by the U.S. Navy's "serious stance" after the two top officers on the USS George Washington were removed from duty in response to a May fire aboard the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.

"The government of Japan believes that stringent measures taken to relieve the two (officers) showed a serious stance from the U.S. side in regards to the fire," said Hiroshi Suzuki, assistant press secretary at Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Suzuki said ministry officials believe the removal of commanding officer Capt. David C. Dykhoff and executive officer Capt. David M. Dober indicates the Navy strives for strict discipline.

"The government of Japan understands that the Navy's investigation was conducted professionally and objectively," he said.

On Thursday afternoon U.S. officials, including the commander of naval forces in Japan, Rear Adm. James Kelly, met with Shinichi Nishimiya, the ministry's North America Affairs Bureau director-general, to explain the findings from the investigation and personnel action taken by the Navy, Suzuki said.

Japanese officials were told that the Navy has also taken further measures to prevent such fires from happening again, Suzuki said.

He said the Japanese government requested the Navy continue with the preventive measures it has taken in response to the fire. He added the government was reassured of the safety of nuclear-powered ships through Thursday's meeting.

But the assurances weren't enough for those protesting the arrival of the George Washington at Yokosuka Naval Base next month.

"We are stunned and can't help feeling shivers going down our spines," Masahiko Goto, a lawyer and leader of a group protesting the carrier, said Thursday in a written statement.

The fire appears to have been started by unauthorized cigarette smoking near improperly stored oil containers, the Navy said Wednesday.

Goto called it a "terrible, horrendous and low-level mistake." He also pointed out that the fire was more serious than initially reported.

The Navy initially said the May 22 fire caused 23 injuries. On Wednesday, the Navy said the fire took 12 hours to extinguish and resulted in 37 injuries.

In his statement, Goto urged both Japanese and U.S. officials to disclose investigation reports and explain preventive measures for the future.

He also requested that the Navy hold a meeting with Yokosuka residents to explain the cause of the fire and address any concerns.

A call to Commander Naval Forces Japan to inquire about Goto's requests was not returned Thursday afternoon.

An official from Kanagawa prefecture, which includes the city of Yokosuka, declined Thursday to comment on the Navy's decision to relieve Dykhoff and Dober.

However, he urged the Navy to strive to prevent similar accidents and to ensure safe operation of the ship.

Stars and Stripes reporter Teri Weaver contributed to this story.

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Hana Kusumoto is a reporter/translator who has been covering local authorities in Japan since 2002. She was born in Nagoya, Japan, and lived in Australia and Illinois growing up. She holds a journalism degree from Boston University and previously worked for the Christian Science Monitor’s Tokyo bureau.
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