KITAHIROSHIMA, Hiroshima -- U.S. military planes have been frequently spotted flying at abnormally low altitudes over this western Japan town as if they are targeting the ground for attack, tormenting local residents with noise pollution and the fear of possible crashes.
"Aren't they doing combat training?" questioned one resident, a concern echoed by other locals. Above the town in a quiet mountainous area with a population of roughly 20,000 lies an airspace used by U.S. forces for training. The airspace, called "Area 567," is part of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces' airspace straddling over Hiroshima and Shimane prefectures. In neighboring Yamaguchi Prefecture, the relocation of carrier-based aircraft to U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni was completed in March 2018.
Hiroshima Prefecture has recorded a particularly high number of U.S. military aircraft flying at low altitudes compared to other areas in Japan. In fiscal 2016, there were 1,227 reports of sightings of low-flying U.S. forces planes in the prefecture, and the figure spiked some 1.5 times to 1,843 in fiscal 2018, after the carrier-borne aircraft were transferred to the Iwakuni base from U.S. Naval Air Facility Atsugi in Kanagawa Prefecture, south of Tokyo. Most of those sightings were reported in Kitahiroshima, with 909 cases in fiscal 2016 and 1,325 cases in FY2018.
"The plane charged straight toward me while lowering its altitude. It was scary," commented Shigeru Takagi, 66, a former postal worker and resident of the town's Yawata district, recalling an incident in 2018. Alarmed by a thunderous noise, he looked up into the sky and found several U.S. military planes drawing closer to him at an abnormally low altitude. Even though the aircraft eventually left after raising their altitudes, he said he "felt as if I were targeted in training for a ground attack."
Such a testimony is not uncommon in the town. People cannot hear the TV when U.S. military planes fly close by, and children get scared. Quite often, such devastating sounds continue for several minutes, implying that the same aircraft could be hovering over the area.
Even on a nice, sunny day, worries over possible U.S. military flights cross Takagi's mind.
"Is there anywhere else where U.S. forces are having it their way this much? I want them to understand that people are living below those flights," he lamented.
A 60-year-old woman in the Yawata district described the sight of two U.S. fighter jets flying at close proximity.
"The other day, I saw two planes flying up, then down, and coming back this way the instant I thought they'd flown away. They were being naughty," she said.
Some residents suspect that the U.S. planes are "practicing dogfights."
In 2017, it was confirmed that a U.S. fighter jet had fired what appeared to be a flare -- a decoy flame to avert anti-aircraft missiles. At the Yawata branch of the Kitahiroshima Municipal Government, aviation noise pollution exceeding 70 decibels was recorded on Aug. 6 this year, the 75th anniversary of the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima and a day of mourning for A-bomb victims.
Akiomi Iwamoto, 52, a local farm operator who has photographed a flare before said, "The national government may not be able to tell the U.S. military firmly, but I want them to do something about this."
An official with the town's crisis management section said, "We have had our opinions conveyed to the U.S. through the Hiroshima Prefectural Government and the (Defense Ministry's Chugoku-Shikoku) Defense Bureau when we have extraordinary cases."
In fact, the Hiroshima Prefectural Government has repeatedly requested the national government and the U.S. to rectify the situation. In July, the prefectural government demanded that the U.S. suspend low-altitude flights that could cause concern among locals and provide information about the content of the aerial training.
When asked by the Mainichi Shimbun what sort of training they carry out above Kitahiroshima, a public relations official for U.S. forces in Japan withheld from commenting by asking that the question be directed to the Japanese defense bureau.
Mitsutaka Fujita, a spokesperson at the Chugoku-Shikoku Defense Bureau, said that the bureau was aware of the voices of concern among residents and that the reports of sightings of low-altitude flights have been referred to the U.S. military as needed.
"As the content of the training concerns the operation of the U.S. military, the details remain unclear," he said.
Toshiyuki Ito, a professor at Kanazawa Institute of Technology's Toranomon Graduate School, who previously served as commandant at the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force's Kure District, commented, "It's unlikely that U.S. forces systematically carry out combat training above the town," adding that some pilots might be deviating from the code of conduct.
"If there exist the realities as complained about by residents, the U.S. military may be having trouble controlling its pilots. The Japanese government should obtain evidence such as on-site photos and assert more strongly that their flights are causing a nuisance," he said.
(Japanese original by Shinji Kurokawa, City News Department)