TOKYO -- Amid findings that U.S. military helicopters repeatedly engaged in flights in central Tokyo at altitudes that would be illegal for Japanese aircraft, the Mainichi Shimbun confirmed seven instances of U.S. helicopters flying over residential areas in Setagaya Ward in the capital's southwest bordering Kanagawa Prefecture.
The helicopters were believed to have been flying by the ward on their way to and from bases in Kanagawa and downtown Tokyo. The Mainichi Shimbun spotted the aircraft fly at an altitude of approximately 200 meters above Setagaya where many houses and commercial buildings stand. It is clear that the U.S. military has normalized their low-altitude flights in Tokyo, which calls for the Japanese government's swift response.
Japan's Civil Aeronautics Act sets the minimum safety flight altitude at 300 meters above the tallest landmark within a 600-meter radius, and aircraft must fly higher than the safety altitude. The Mainichi Shimbun observed U.S. military aircraft from multiple 200 meter-class buildings, which offer clear views of the city center, and confirmed U.S. military helicopters flying at altitudes lower than the minimum safety altitude in downtown Tokyo including Shinjuku and Shibuya wards a total of 17 times. Since November 2020, the Mainichi Shimbun also spotted a similar pattern of low-altitude flights conducted above Setagaya Ward seven times over a span of four days.
At around 1:25 p.m. on Dec. 14, 2020, and at around 11:30 a.m. on Dec. 17, a U.S. Navy Seahawk helicopter entered the ward from the direction of Kanagawa Prefecture, each time flying by an apartment building about 150 meters tall near Tokyu Railways' Futako-tamagawa Station and Carrot Tower standing 124 meters tall near Tokyu's Sangen-jaya Station. The altitude at which the helicopter was flying was lower than where a Mainichi Shimbun reporter was standing at a height of about 220 meters. The helicopter could have been flying at the same altitude as the height of the apartment complex and Carrot Tower.
On Nov. 17, 2020, and Jan. 14, this year, U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopters believed to belong to Camp Zama in Kanagawa Prefecture were spotted flying in the direction of downtown Tokyo from Kanagawa and western Tokyo where Yokota Air Base is located, making round trips to and from a U.S. military heliport in the capital's Roppongi area. On Nov. 17, two Black Hawks flew over Setagaya once in formation, and on Jan. 14, one Black Hawk made two round trips above the ward. The helicopter then flew by the Tokyo Opera City office and theater complex, which stands about 234 meters tall in Shinjuku Ward between Setagaya and Roppongi, at an altitude lower than the building and continued to fly in the skies of Setagaya while maintaining its altitude.
The Mainichi Shimbun also confirmed U.S. aircraft flying along the Metropolitan Expressway Route 3, or Shibuya Route, stretching between Kanagawa Prefecture and downtown Tokyo, and the Odakyu Line, suggesting that these aircraft are possibly using these structures as landmarks for flight routes. They also flew at low altitudes over neighboring Suginami and Meguro wards, as well as the cities of Kawasaki and Yokohama near bases.
When asked by the Mainichi Shimbun the purposes and reasons for the low-altitude flights over Setagaya Ward where residential areas stretch far, United States Forces Japan did not give out concrete responses but merely explained that "all flights conducted by U.S. Forces are either mission-essential or for training and readiness requirements."
"I want them to conduct flights that are more sensible," said a 62-year-old Setagaya Ward resident, expressing his growing sense of distrust over the noise pollution caused by U.S. military helicopters. His house is located along the Odakyu Line, one of the sites believed be used as landmarks for their flight routes when heading to central Tokyo. While the man is not sure if all of the helicopters he sees belong to the U.S. military, he says he sees them making up to 10 round trips a day.
"I sometimes get woken up between 1 and 2 a.m. by the flight noise," the man claims. "Looking at them from the ground, it feels like they are flying at an altitude of maybe 100 meters."
The man showed the Mainichi Shimbun photos of the helicopters he said he had taken in June last year. While it was difficult to identify the helicopter in the picture as the image was small, fuel tanks could be seen on both sides of the aircraft, one of the features of Black Hawks. As a Mainichi Shimbun reporter was interviewing the man at his home, a U.S. Air Force UH-1 helicopter flew above.
The man used a municipal government system where residents can directly make petitions with Setagaya Ward Mayor Nobuto Hosaka and reported late night flights of helicopters believed to belong to the U.S. military last year. However, the ward office's section in charge of the matter responded by just stating, "In cases where we can identify characteristics of the aircraft, we make inquiries with related organizations, and when the flight can be confirmed we request them to pay attention to the noise."
But helicopters fly over the man's house without prior announcements and pass in the blink of an eye. The man also expressed frustration, saying, "I can't possibly check the characteristics of the aircraft on my own."
The peace advocate group "Seijo-Soshigaya 9-jo no kai" (a citizens' association in Setagaya's Seijo and Soshigaya areas supporting Article 9 of the Constitution) conducted its own investigation over low-altitude flights of helicopters. The group launched a probe after hearing that children in the area would cry in fear because of the noise the aircraft make.
For a period of about one month in 2013, six to seven members of the group checked the time and directions of helicopters and airplanes flying above. They observed 136 aircraft and provided the data to the ward office, but they were unable to confirm whether the aircraft belonged to the U.S. military and could not convince the municipal government to take action over the matter.
Many group members are of advanced age. Sukeo Negishi, 91, told the Mainichi Shimbun, "I want Setagaya residents to know more about the reality. While we're willing to do what we can, little information is available on U.S. military helicopters that fly above us."
According to the Setagaya Ward office's environment preservation division, they receive 30 to 70 complaints annually over noise pollution caused by aircraft. An official said, "We believe we respond sincerely to complaints filed by residents, but without concrete information it's hard to identify whether the aircraft belong to the U.S. military." They added, "As our ward area is wide, we cannot confirm (aircraft) even when a flight is reported."
(Japanese original by Hiroyuki Oba, Toshiaki Uchihashi and Atsushi Matsumoto, City News Department and Takahiro Kato, Video Group)