The U.S. military conducted paradrop training at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa on Oct. 29. While Japan's Ministry of Defense has requested a halt to such training at the Kadena base, the U.S. military has repeatedly conducted it, deviating from an agreement between the two countries.
In paradrop training, personnel and supplies are dropped to the ground with parachutes. It is necessary for the U.S. military, which has bases overseas, to maintain a high level of readiness. But there is a danger of such drops resulting in a serious accident if they land outside the Kadena base. Before Okinawa was returned to Japan in 1972, a girl died when a trailer was dropped onto the prefecture's main island.
Yomitan Auxiliary Airfield in the Okinawa village of Yomitan was formerly used as a training facility. But after the prefectural government strongly requested the return of the airfield, the paradrop facility was relocated to Ie Island, located several kilometers off Okinawa's main island, based on an agreement with the Special Action Committee on Okinawa in 1996.
Nevertheless, parachute drop training later started to be carried out at Kadena Air Base, which is surrounded by residential areas. U.S. Forces exchanged an agreement with Japan in 2007 that allowed Kadena to be used in exceptional cases, and the U.S. military has used that agreement as the basis for paradrops at the base. Such training has been performed at the base a total of 13 times to date, including four times this year.
Citing bad weather on Ie Island, the U.S. military on Oct. 27 gave Japanese authorities notice about the Oct. 29 paradrop at Kadena, which was conducted after sundown. But earlier on Oct. 29, it had conducted daytime parachute training on Ie Island.
If a parachute drop were to land in the sea at nighttime, when visibility is poor, it would be difficult to search for it. As there is no such danger at the Kadena base, we cannot erase suspicions that nighttime training at Kadena was envisaged from the outset. The Okinawa Prefectural Government and the Kadena Municipal Government have made strong protests against the latest training.
It was only natural for Defense Minister Taro Kono to similarly criticize the training, saying that bad weather was not grounds for an exception. U.S. Forces in Japan posted a response on Facebook stating that "exceptional cases" was recognized to mean "that paradrop training should not be conducted regularly."
But if such training is simply presented as being irregular, then it could be conducted at the Kadena base arbitrarily, and could then become systematic. If the Japanese government has left the discrepancy over interpretations of this issue unaddressed for a long time, then it bears a heavy responsibility.
The Defense Ministry says that it has requested halts to such training when it has received notice, but just how serious has it been in its negotiations? Kono has expressed an intention to discuss the issue at the ministerial level. We hope that he engages in such talks in earnest.
From the very outset, it is not simply the case that paradrops are permissible if they are conducted on Ie Island. The village of Ie agonized over its decision to accept such training, on the premise that Okinawa's burden of hosting U.S. bases would be lightened overall. If the act of ignoring the basic rules goes unchallenged, then it will only result in an increased sense of distrust.
Kono further pointed out that the move runs counter to a strengthening of the Japan-U.S. alliance. If the situation is not addressed, then it could damage the pact.