Officials with Japan's Coast Guard were notified of the distressed vessel by Taiwan authorities late on Saturday. The Coast Guard sent patrol boats and aircraft to the area, which was approximately 150 km (93 miles) off the southeast coast of Okinawa.
The 11th Regional Coast Guard Headquarters in Naha, Okinawa told the Japan Times
that smoke was seen on the the stern of the of the Chinese vessel, the Ming Yang. By 2:30 am Sunday morning, 21 sailors had been rescued from life rafts and another 43 who remained aboard the burning cargo freighter were also rescued. Three of the sailors sustained minor injuries.
According to Japan Today
, the chief engineer of the freighter reported hearing what sounded like an explosion from the main engine on Saturday evening, but it is still not known what exactly caused the fire.
Tensions between China and Japan have been high since September, when Japan bought the rights to several islands in the area. China has claimed ownership of the islands, while Japan has claimed jurisdiction based on the islands being located off the coast of Japan. The Japanese Coast Guard has been busy monitoring the waters around disputed islands since September.