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Students at school near US base forced to evacuate indoors 216 times in about a month

Students at Futenma No. 2 Elementary School in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture, take part in an evacuation drill in preparation for the approach of a U.S. military aircraft in this file photo taken on Jan. 18, 2018. (Mainichi)

GINOWAN, Okinawa -- At an elementary school here where a window from a U.S. military chopper flying overhead fell onto the school playground in December last year, students were forced to evacuate the playground 216 times due to approaching U.S. military aircraft in the month or so when use of the playground resumed and the school year ended, a survey by the Defense Ministry's Okinawa Defense Bureau has revealed.

The tally was taken between Feb. 13, when the school resumed full use of the playground following an incident late last year in which a window fell from a U.S. military CH-53 transport helicopter, and March 23, the final day of the school year.

The revelations indicate that U.S. military aircraft continue to fly over the school even after the incident, deeply affecting students' school experiences.

In response to demands from Futenma No. 2 Elementary School and its PTA, the Okinawa Defense Bureau positioned a total of seven patrol agents on the school playground and the school roof starting in January. They confirmed the direction in which the noses of U.S. military aircraft were pointed both by sight and with cameras, and when they determined that there was a risk that aircraft would fly over the school, they used megaphones to instruct students and staff on the playground and other outdoor areas of the school to take shelter inside the school building.

Of the 28 days that students were at school during the survey period, there were only four days -- Feb. 19 and 20, which were holidays for the U.S. military, and March 22 and 23, when the school held a graduation ceremony and a year-end ceremony, respectively -- when students were not evacuated indoors. The greatest number of times students were evacuated in a single day was 23, on March 6, and in addition, there were 10 days on which students were evacuated at least 10 times. On some days, students were forced to evacuate multiple times during 45-minute classes.

On average, evacuations required about a minute, but due to temporary lapses in students' concentration, in many cases, it took about five minutes for classes to resume.

Some grades were forced to cancel long-distance running assessments due to repeated interruptions. "My sons and I were training together for the long-distance run, so I'm disappointed," the school's PTA vice-chairman Morimichi Iju, 52, who has a son each in fourth and fifth grade, told the Mainichi Shimbun. "It's not right to let this situation continue."

Meanwhile, the school's principal, Osamu Tobaru, expressed his distress over the current state of affairs. "If there are two evacuations during a class, the class goes to waste. It's a grave situation. It concerns me also because there haven't been any detailed investigations into what sort of effects this situation might have," he said. With a sigh, he continued, "I'm torn, because while I want to give the children their normal everyday lives back, I can't put them at risk."

After a window still in its frame fell from a CH-53 transport helicopter onto the school grounds last year, the U.S. military has said that it would try, to the maximum possible degree, not to fly over the school.

The U.S. military only said it would make an effort not to fly over the school. However, in reality, military aircraft fly over and near the school constantly. In January, the Defense Ministry confirmed three military choppers flying in formation over the school and lodged a complaint with the U.S. military. The military, however, denied that the incident even took place.

A spokesperson for III Marine Expeditionary Force told the Mainichi Shimbun that all its pilots are aware of the school's location, and after liftoff, they can confirm the school by sight and maneuver their aircraft to avoid flying over the school.

Akiko Yamamoto, an adjunct lecturer at Okinawa International University and an expert on base-related issues, explained, "The current administration (of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe) is trying to show Okinawa prefectural residents that it's keeping a close eye on U.S. military aircraft, but it's unlikely to limit the range in which the U.S. military can conduct its activities, claiming that doing so would 'lower deterrence.'"

(Japanese original by Hiroshi Higa, Kyushu Head Office News Department)

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