Please view the main text area of the page by skipping the main menu.

Purpose of US military helicopters' low flights through downtown Tokyo remain a mystery

TOKYO -- U.S. military helicopters have repeatedly been spotted flying at low altitudes perilously close to buildings in downtown Tokyo, and experts have raised various theories on possible objectives for the flights, from drills to leisure purposes.

    An investigative Mainichi Shimbun team observed flights of U.S. military aircraft between July 2020 and January 2021 from multiple points including the observatory in the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building near Shinjuku Station, and from Mainichi Shimbun helicopters.

    Around 10:55 a.m. on Aug. 18 last year, a black chopper landed at the helipad of the Akasaka Press Center, a U.S. military base in the Roppongi area in the capital's Minato Ward around 4 kilometers from Shinjuku Station. Inscribed with the label "United States Army," the aircraft was apparently a multipurpose Black Hawk military helicopter.

    A U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter flies at the same altitude as the southern observatory room of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government's first main building in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward, in this image from video taken on Aug. 18, 2020. (Mainichi/Takahiro Kato)

    The helicopter departed immediately after six young men and women in camouflage clothing who were waiting at the edge of the helipad boarded the aircraft. Although it flew in the direction of Kanagawa Prefecture, south of Tokyo, where there are U.S. military bases, the helicopter shifted its course to head north when it reached the area around Shibuya Station, and flew toward Shinjuku, where reporters were filming.

    The helicopter passed above Shinjuku Station in the space between the NTT Docomo Yoyogi Building, known as Docomo Tower, which is located near Yoyogi Station, and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, while maintaining a fixed altitude. Its altitude was clearly lower than the upper edge of Docomo Tower, which stands at roughly 270 meters.

    Japanese law and regulations specify that the minimum safety altitude for flying is 300 meters above the upper edge of the highest obstacle within a 600-meter radius of the aircraft in densely populated areas, and stipulates that aircraft fly at altitudes higher than this. The distance between the metropolitan government building and Docomo Tower is only about 1.1 kilometers, and the area is dotted with other high-rise buildings including the JR East headquarters, standing at around 150 meters. The U.S. military helicopter's low-altitude flight clearly contravened the stipulations of the aviation law applying to Japanese aircraft.

    The Black Hawk helicopter, which flew over Shinjuku Station, then turned eastward with the avant-garde Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower, standing at some 200 meters, to its left. Flying near the Kabukicho district popular with foreign tourists, the huge statue of Godzilla's head -- a symbolic landmark of the entertainment district -- would have been visible from the aircraft.

    A U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter flies at nearly the same altitude as the observatory of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government's first main building in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward, in this image from video taken on Aug. 18, 2020. (Mainichi/Hiroyuki Oba)

    The Black Hawk then flew above Tokyo Dome, Ueno Park, and Asakusa, and headed toward Tokyo Skytree. Below the route taken by the helicopter were elementary, junior high and senior high schools, as well as universities and hospitals.

    The helicopter made a U-turn when it passed Tokyo Skytree, and took almost the same route back before appearing again above Shinjuku Station. It came very close to the JR Shinjuku Miraina Tower, a 170-meter-tall commercial building connected to the station, and flew right past reporters in the observatory at the metropolitan government building standing at a height of 202 meters, at an altitude almost equivalent to the observatory. The helicopter continued south and flew off in the direction of Kanagawa, perhaps to head to a military base.

    The Akasaka Press Center, a U.S. military base with a helipad in the Roppongi area in the capital's Minato Ward, may be a factor in the background of U.S. military helicopters flying in central Tokyo.

    The Akasaka Press Center serves as a base for transporting top U.S. government and military officials to the heart of Japan's capital, from suburban locations including Yokota Air Base in western Tokyo, as well as Camp Zama, Naval Air Facility Atsugi, and Yokosuka Naval Base in Kanagawa Prefecture, south of Tokyo. The trip takes around 10 to 20 minutes one way. The Akasaka Press Center was also used by former U.S. president Donald Trump when he visited Japan.

    The military base in Roppongi, which is about half the size of Tokyo Dome, has been used to this day since the Japanese government provided the property as a facility and zone for the U.S. military in 1952 following the confiscation of former Japanese army posts by the Allied forces after the end of World War II. Although the Minato Ward Office has repeatedly demanded that the Japanese government remove the military base due to noise problems and concerns over possible accidents, there has been no progress on the issue.

    A Minato Ward official said, "Upon departure and landing, the wind pressure caused by helicopters is so great that you feel like you're about to be blown away, and the noise is immense. Residents in nearby areas have been forced to endure this for many years."

    A U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter flies above JR Shinjuku Miraina Tower, a commercial building connected to Shinjuku Station, in this image from video taken from the north observatory room of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government's first main building on Aug. 18, 2020. (Mainichi/Takahiro Kato)

    Black Hawk helicopters, which have been seen flying at low altitudes during the Mainichi Shimbun investigations, have been stationed in multiple numbers at Camp Zama, which stretches across the cities of Sagamihara and Zama in Kanagawa Prefecture, some 30 kilometers from the heart of Tokyo. Although the main duties of Black Hawk helicopters in Japan are said to be the transportation of personnel and training with the Japanese Self-Defense Forces, they also join combat in battlefields, which involves shooting and launching missiles, as well as transporting special units to enemy territories. In Japan, a Black Hawk helicopter crashed onto the deck of a U.S. vessel off the coast of Uruma, Okinawa Prefecture, in 2015, injuring seven people, including two Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force members who were participating in a drill.

    The Mainichi Shimbun explained the details of the findings of its investigation into the low-altitude flights, and requested an interview with U.S. Forces Japan.

    The U.S. military responded via email around two weeks later. It emphasized that U.S. Forces Japan adheres to bilateral agreements between the two countries, and commented, "Weather, wind speed/direction, or other factors may affect an aircraft's approach, altitude, speed, descent, etc. as all options are considered when determining the safest possible flight protocol within our bilateral agreements." Although U.S. Forces Japan did not reveal the specific reasons for each flight, they deemed flights as "either mission-essential or for training and readiness requirements," and emphasized that "at no time will a military flight be authorized for sight-seeing or leisure purposes."

    According to Bonji Ohara, a senior fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation and former Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force pilot who headed a helicopter unit, U.S. military helicopters in Japan have the duty to transport presidents and other top officials to the U.S. military helipad in the Roppongi district of Tokyo. The aircraft have repeatedly been spotted above Shinjuku Station, as it is likely included in the flight route to the helipad. Low-altitude flights can also be for orientation, to familiarize pilots with geographical terrain and other features, he said, and military personnel could be checking appropriate locations for emergency landings during flights.

    Furthermore, Ohara said it is possible that the U.S. military is using skyscrapers in Shinjuku as what are known as holding points. Helicopters must land in accordance with the time when vehicles with top officials arrive at helipads, so the schedules of top officials can go ahead without the risk of being attacked. To do this, they arrange time by standing by in the air. Flights over the Shinjuku area apparently seem to be confirming such zones for standing by.

    Toshiyuki Ito, a professor at Kanazawa Institute of Technology's Toranomon Graduate School and former vice admiral who served as a defense attache at the Japanese Embassy in the United States, pointed to the possibility that U.S. military helicopters could be flying for leisure on the sidelines of their training duties. Although frequent flights above Shinjuku appear to be for the purpose of conducting drills for transporting top officials to the U.S. military helipad in Roppongi, if there were cases where helicopters flew low along routes including from Shinjuku Station to Tokyo Skytree, they could be flying for leisure purposes after their training duties were over, Ito pointed out.

    On the other hand, the low-altitude flights also have the possibility of being drills envisioning urban warfare scenarios, according to Ito. U.S. military soldiers who are directly involved in changes in global affairs constantly conduct drills to prepare for combat. However, he said it would be a big issue if the low-altitude flights above Shinjuku were being conducted by U.S. Forces without contacting and gaining prior consent from the Japanese government and Tokyo Metropolitan Government. The Japanese government should not abandon this issue, and firmly protest, said Ito.

    (Japanese original by Takahiro Kato, Video Group, Hiroyuki Oba, City News Department, and Tamami Kawakami, Foreign News Department)

    Also in The Mainichi

    The Mainichi on social media