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Constitutional right to live in peace far away for Okinawans amid repeated accidents

Yukiko Chinen calls for safe skies during a symposium held at Okinawa International University, on April 29, 2018, in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture. The university is the site of a 2004 U.S. military helicopter crash. (Mainichi)

NAHA -- The preamble of the Constitution of Japan, which turns 71 years old on May 3, guarantees "the right to live in peace." But for the residents of Okinawa Prefecture, where 70 percent of U.S. military installations in the country are located, that peace has remained elusive, with the islanders living their daily lives in fear of U.S. military aircraft accidents.

With accidents continuing to affect even children, such as the U.S. Marine helicopter window that fell on an elementary school playground in December 2017, parents are calling for a day when living safely with peace of mind becomes a matter of fact in Okinawa.

"The safety and lives of children are being trampled on," decries Yukiko Chinen, 39, at an April 29 symposium held at Okinawa International University in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture. The theme of the symposium was, "'Why do things fall from the sky?' We cannot answer."

The topic is particularly close to home for Chinen, whose 5-year-old daughter attends Midorigaoka Nursery in Ginowan, a mere 300 meters from U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma. On Dec. 7, 2017, a cylindrical object that fell from a U.S. helicopter was discovered on the roof of the nursery. While there is a high possibility that the object fell from an aircraft flying over the school, the U.S. military dismissed the claims.

The symposium's location is also meaningful: In 2004, a U.S. military helicopter crashed into Okinawa International University.

Chinen was born and raised in Ginowan, but has grown disillusioned. "No matter how much we protest, the military base will not disappear," she said. Still, the evening that the object was discovered on the roof of her daughter's nursery, Chinen cried with relief when she saw that her child was safe.

When her daughter told her there was a loud sound and she asked her what had fallen on the school, Chinen realized that if she stayed silent any longer, she would not be able to protect her little girl. The next day, she launched a petition with other parents demanding that all locally-based U.S. military aircraft be banned from flying over the nursery. The campaign collected some 140,000 signatures from across Japan, but the Japanese government turned its back on the request, citing the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement.

"But the lives of children should be protected under the Constitution... Why?" Chinen's dissatisfaction grew.

The preamble of the Constitution of Japan reads, "We recognize that all peoples of the world have the right to live in peace, free from fear and want." There is also Article 13, which guarantees the right to the pursuit of happiness, and many other sections that specify the right to live peacefully. However, in Okinawa, parents see a world far removed from the Constitution's ideals.

Following the discovery of the item on the nursery roof, a roughly 8-kilogram military helicopter window fell on the grounds of Ginowan Municipal Futenma No. 2 Elementary School on Dec. 13, 2017. Tatsumi Goya, 43, whose eldest son and daughter both attend the school, also took the podium at the symposium. The ban on the use of the school grounds was lifted this February, but every time a U.S. military aircraft flies near the school during physical education classes, the children must rush inside.

The Japanese Constitution came to apply to the islands of Okinawa in 1972 when they were returned to Japanese sovereignty after 27 years of U.S. control following World War II. That Constitution declares the right of everyone to live in peace and to have equal access to education. For Goya, who was born after the return of the islands to Japan, that promise is not being realized in Okinawa.

"On a small island crammed full of U.S. military installations, our basic rights are not being protected," he says.

In a 1989 Supreme Court case contesting the constitutionality of the Self-Defense Forces, it was ruled that the right to live peacefully was not concrete, but rather an "ideal or abstract concept." But 64-year-old Tetsumi Takara, professor of constitutional law at the University of the Ryukyus, argues, "In Okinawa, living in fear has become a reality. It is not abstract. Their right to live in peace is actually being violated."

"A considerable amount of time for compulsory education for children is being affected, and it is also leading to infringement on the right to study," Takara notes. "Not coming up with countermeasures is the government failing to act, and we should be able to question the responsibility of the government to its citizens."

(Japanese original by Takayasu Endo, Naha Bureau, and Makoto Kakizaki, Kyushu News Department)

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