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Southwest Japan locals angered by US Marines' nighttime shellfire in maneuver area

A 155-millimeter howitzer used in live fire exercises is seen at the Hijudai Maneuver Area in Oita Prefecture. (Mainichi/Tomohiro Tsujimoto)
Oita Prefecture's Vice Gov. Kenji Ono, right, hands a request to observe a written confirmation on limits to nighttime shellfire to Takashi Tamagoshi, planning director at the Kyushu Defense Bureau, at the Oita Prefectural Government headquarters on Feb. 17, 2020. (Mainichi/Toru Shirakawa)

OITA -- Residents near the Ground Self-Defense Force Hijudai Maneuver Area in the southwestern Japan prefecture of Oita have expressed anger over live fire exercises by the U.S. Marines that are continuing beyond the designated finishing time of 8 p.m.

The Oita Prefectural Government and three municipalities that host the training ground exchanged written confirmation in 2017 with the Kyushu Defense Bureau that shellfire would not continue past 8 p.m. However, on Feb. 14, 16 and 17, U.S. Marines from Okinawa who were training at Hijudai went ahead with open fire past this time.

The U.S. military has ignored the agreement in the past, but this year marks the first time it has ignored it three times within the same exercise period. Angered residents say that the nighttime shellfire is like a direct challenge to the written confirmation.

"The U.S Marines haven't made any attempt to listen, and we're furious. The training this time is different from before," said Yoji Eto, a 60-year-old livestock farmer living near the training site.

Live fire exercises were moved from Okinawa to the Hijudai Maneuver Area and four other locations across Japan to lighten Okinawa's burden of hosting U.S. military bases following an incident in 1995 in which a 12-year-old Okinawan girl was raped by U.S. servicemen. The exercises at Hijudai were first conducted in February 1999, and this year marked the 14th time they have been held. This time, roughly 150 U.S. Marines from Okinawa are conducting training between Feb. 12 and 21 with equipment they have brought, including three 155-millimeter howitzers.

According to the Oita Prefectural Government, shells were confirmed to have been fired 22 times after 8 p.m. on Feb. 14. The prefecture and the three municipalities that host the training ground responded by filing a protest with the Kyushu Defense Bureau on Feb. 15, but the same thing happened on Feb. 16 and 17. For the first five days of the exercises, training continued until around 9 p.m.

Ryuji Urata, the head of a citizen's group that monitors training activities, commented, "Up until now, if we had protested once, then open fire wouldn't continue after 8 p.m. It appears that they're caught up over the timing of the shellfire and are trying to chip away at moves to limit it."

On Feb. 17, a four-party committee formed by the prefectural government and the three municipalities called Takashi Tamagoshi, planning director at the Kyushu Defense Bureau to the prefectural government headquarters to protest. Vice Gov. Kenji Ono handed him a request to observe the written confirmation, saying the repeated violations were making light of it and couldn't be ignored. Tamagoshi responded, "We've made requests to the U.S. military whenever we've had the opportunity, so it's regrettable. We'd like to persist in requesting that they refrain from shellfire after 8 p.m."

Journalist Toshihiro Yoshida, who is familiar with U.S. military issues, commented, "The problem is that the central government hasn't set conditions for the U.S. military for their use of training grounds. If the written confirmation is between the Kyushu Defense Bureau and local bodies, then it simply becomes a 'request' to the U.S. military. If Japan is a sovereign state, then to keep its citizens safe, it should create a viable written confirmation that includes the U.S. military."

(Japanese original by Toru Shirakawa and Hirokage Tabata, Oita Bureau)

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