NAHA -- While low-altitude flights by U.S. military helicopters in central Tokyo have become a problem, U.S. Forces aircraft have also repeatedly been spotted flying low in the country's southernmost prefecture of Okinawa -- where 70% of U.S. military-dedicated facilities in Japan are located -- since the end of 2020.
The low-altitude flights by U.S. military aircraft have been observed over Okinawa's remote islands and the northern part of its main island. The U.S. military claims that the flights are part of necessary training and conform to the minimum altitude standards agreed to between the United States and Japan. However, prefectural authorities have been dubious about the U.S. military's explanation following the submission of videos taken by residents and other individuals. Increased tensions in U.S.-China relations have been raised as a background factor for the increased U.S. military aircraft training at low altitudes.
A resident of the prefectural village of Kunigami witnessed a U.S. military aircraft flying low over Cape Hedo on the northern tip of Okinawa's main island on the afternoon of Feb. 4 this year, when he visited the area to observe whales. "While maintaining the same height that it took when crossing the ocean, the aircraft came flying in as if to circle the cape. It was far too low, and I thought it would collide with a boulder," said 67-year-old Muneyuki Kayo.
Cape Hedo is located in Yambaru National Park, a Japanese government-designated park visited by tourists. The area is not included in U.S. military training zones. Kayo expressed his anger and said, "I've seen U.S. military aircraft time and again after that day. It's a sight that's completely mismatched with a scenic spot, and it frustrates me. The flights must have a purpose, but I want them to do it somewhere away from land."
Since the end of 2020, there have continuously been cases in Okinawa where videos filmed by residents revealed low-altitude flights by U.S. military aircraft. On Dec. 28, 2020, an aircraft was seen flying near an observation deck west of Zamami Island, located west of Okinawa's main island. A video taken by Joji Miyahira, 48, a village assembly member for Zamami, showed an aircraft flying immediately above a sign which read "about 44 meters above sea level." The Kerama Islands, which include Zamami Island, have also been designated as a national park, and low-altitude flights were observed in the area the following day on Dec. 29 and also on Jan. 6, 2021, in spite of its exclusion from U.S. military training zones.
In response to this situation, on Feb. 16, the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly unanimously -- with votes from Liberal Democratic Party faction members -- passed a resolution of protest, a demand for an immediate suspension of low-altitude flights, as well as the abolishment of a special provisions law exempting U.S. Forces from Japan's aviation law, and a written opinion urging reform of the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). On Feb. 19, Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki also spoke to Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi via phone, and requested that the national government "approach the United States and demand that it cease all training outside facilities and zones provided to U.S. Forces."
There are 31 U.S. military-dedicated facilities within Okinawa Prefecture, and they account for about 8% of the prefecture's area. Furthermore, as for surrounding areas, Japan has provided to the U.S. military some 55,000 square kilometers of waters around the prefecture -- about 1.3 times the size of the Kyushu region -- and airspace of around 95,000 square kilometers -- about 1.1 times the size of Hokkaido -- as training zones. A senior official at the Okinawa Prefectural Government said, "They already have vast training zones in the waters and skies, but if training happens even outside those zones, concerns among residents will only spread."
The aircraft witnessed flying at low altitudes in Okinawa since the end of 2020 have all been MC130J special operations tankers. Fumiaki Nozoe, associate professor at Okinawa International University who specializes in the history of U.S.-Japan diplomacy and researches U.S. military trends, said, "Sending special units and resources to the front lines and building outposts are the duties of special operations aircraft. It could be that they are brushing up on their skills flying at low altitudes to avoid being caught on the enemy's radar. The U.S. military is drawing up a strategy to build an impromptu outpost and launch counterattacks in emergency situations, in response to China boosting its military power in the west Pacific." Meanwhile, U.S. Forces have told Japan's Defense Ministry that the aircraft flew with the objective to maintain pilots' skills, and that the flights were based on the agreement between Japan and the U.S.
Although Japan's Civil Aeronautics Act is not applicable to flights by U.S. military aircraft due to a special provisions law based on the SOFA, an agreement by the Japan-U.S. Joint Committee specifies that the minimum altitude standards stipulated by Japan's aviation law be applied to U.S. aircraft. The minimum altitude for flying specified by the Ordinance for Enforcement of the Civil Aeronautics Act is 150 meters above the ground surface or the water surface in places excluding densely populated areas. Meanwhile, the prefectural government said, "We have been demanding for a while that the U.S. military abide by the laws of Japan, including the aviation law." Authorities cited the videos provided by residents and pointed out, "It is possible that the U.S. military has not even been following the altitude standards agreed to by the U.S. and Japan."
During a House of Representatives Budget Committee session on Feb. 17, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said, "As for the execution of training (by the U.S. military), I'd like to have the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs respond and urge them to abide by the rules and pay the utmost consideration to safety, and minimize the impact on local residents." Meanwhile, Suga said, "U.S. military flights for training purposes are significant to achieve the objectives of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan," which suggests that the Japanese government does not intend to demand that the flights be halted.
Kayo, who witnessed the low-altitude flights at Cape Hedo, lamented the situation and said, "Even if the prefecture protests, it doesn't have any effect at all."
(Japanese original by Takayasu Endo and Nozomu Takeuchi, Naha Bureau)