updated 10/22/2008 6:31:25 PM ET 2008-10-22T22:31:25

A Japanese sailor dropping out of an elite navy training program died in an unofficial farewell ritual requiring him to fight 15 classmates, the Defense Ministry said Wednesday.

The 25-year-old petty officer died of internal injuries on Sept. 25, nearly two weeks after being knocked unconscious in the 15-round kick boxing-style fight, the ministry said in an interim report from the investigation.

"Anyone would think it was overkill, or went over the edge," Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada told reporters, acknowledging the ritual was improper.

Hamada apologized to the man's family and promised a thorough investigation.

The sailor, whose name was withheld by the ministry, was two days away from leaving the two-year program for the navy's elite Special Boarding Unit, which he joined in December. The victim, who was on submarine crew, was to return to his former unit.

According to the report, one of the school's two supervisors approved the fight, which was suggested by another student.

But the report found the fight was unnecessary and more like a ritual, noting a similar incident in May, where another sailor leaving the program suffered broken teeth and a lip injury fighting 16 opponents.

The report, however, stopped short of calling the ritual an act of hazing.

Kyodo News agency quoted an unidentified navy lieutenant commander as saying that he believed the event was meant as group bullying.

According to the report, the sailor was unable to kick after several of the 50-second-long rounds and by the tenth round, he was worn out but still responsive.

In the 14th round, one of his opponents landed a right hook that knocked him out and he was rushed to the hospital. He never regained consciousness.

The report also noted that the program lacked curriculum and safety guidelines, and the supervisors were not trained to teach martial arts. They did not ask medical staff to stand by during the event, and ordered other students to cool the victim with ice, rather than call an ambulance, as they initially thought the sailor had heat stroke or fatigue.

The case is the latest embarrassment for the ministry, which has been under fire over a spate of scandals, including a leak of sensitive missile data at the same school last year leading to a naval officer's indictment, and a collision earlier this year between a destroyer and a tuna trawler that left two fishermen dead.

The report found classmates had differing views of the farewell ritual with one classmate calling it "a nice send-off gift," while another said the victim might have seen the event as a punishment.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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