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Editorial: Change pact with US forces to give Japan full control of Tokyo air traffic

There is an area in the skies over the capital controlled by U.S. forces, through which passenger aircraft cannot fly freely. This is nothing but abnormal.

The Yokota airspace is a massive area over Tokyo and eight surrounding prefectures whose maximum altitude reaches 7,000 meters, making it like a mountain range. The U.S. Yokota Air Base is in charge of managing air traffic in this space, and passing through it requires permission from the American military. Its existence prohibits free movement between the east and west of the country, and it is customary for commercial flights departing from and landing at Haneda Airport in Tokyo to evade the airspace.

The governments of Japan and the U.S., however, have agreed that the U.S. military will accept flight paths for Haneda-bound passenger airplanes routed through the eastern edge of the airspace, and that the Japanese side will control those flights.

The route was newly introduced in response to a planned increase in the number of international flights ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. Aircraft flying this route would take several minutes to pass through the Yokota airspace above Tokyo's Nerima Ward.

It would have been dangerous if air traffic control for planes on this route had changed hands twice in a short period of time, from Japan to the U.S. when entering the airspace, and then from the U.S. to Japan when leaving it. For the sake of safety, it is only natural for the Japanese side to administer all air traffic control.

The Civil Aeronautics Act stipulates how air traffic control in the skies over Japan should be conducted. The Yokota airspace lies within Japanese territorial airspace, but passing through it requires the American military's permission. Why is such an unreasonable arrangement still in place?

The Yokota airspace is based on a 1975 agreement of the Japan-U.S. Joint Committee that said the U.S. government is responsible for the air traffic control around American bases in Japan. The joint committee has its roots in the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement. The right to air traffic control was given to the U.S. military in a 1952 joint committee meeting as a "temporary measure," but it has since been treated as if it is a permanent privilege of the U.S. forces.

It is a problem that an important matter concerning Japan's sovereignty has been set as a rule without the involvement of the National Diet.

The joint committee is a mere bureaucratic framework headed by the chief of the North American Affairs Bureau of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the deputy commander of the U.S. Forces Japan. Its meetings are closed, and records of its discussions remain undisclosed. Because of this nature of the committee, it is not possible to know how the treatment of the U.S. air traffic control right has shifted based on discussions at the panel.

The Japanese government explains that domestic laws do not apply to American forces stationed in the country. However, a problem affecting the lives of the people of Japan should not be left unattended.

Tokyo has never proposed to revise the Status of Forces Agreement with Washington. But Germany revised such an agreement so that its domestic aviation law could be applied to U.S. military aircraft. The government should go ahead and propose revisions to the agreement.

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