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Editorial: Low-altitude flights by US military in Japan are dangerous, breed distrust

Low-altitude flights by U.S. military helicopters over central Tokyo are becoming a common sight.

    A Mainichi Shimbun investigation conducted from an observation deck in the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building and other locations over the course of half a year recorded U.S. helicopters flying at low altitudes of under 300 meters over 20 times.

    Such low-altitude flights are dangerous and could lead to a disaster, and they cannot be overlooked. The U.S. military should clarify the state of such flights and their purpose.

    Japan's Civil Aeronautics Act requires aircraft to maintain an altitude of at least 300 meters above the highest building in densely populated areas, or 150 meters in areas that are not densely populated.

    U.S. military aircraft, however, are held to be exempt from these stipulations under a special law accompanying the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), leading to endless noise pollution as well as accidents. Because of this, the U.S. and Japanese governments reached an agreement in 1999, under which the U.S. military was to also apply the altitude standards under the Civil Aeronautics Act, and pay due consideration, particularly with regard to flights in densely populated areas.

    It has become clear, however, that this agreement has not been followed.

    U.S. Forces Japan has expressed the opinion that helicopters are exempt from the provisions, but the Japanese government says that the agreement is not restricted to any particular type of aircraft, meaning their positions conflict. If the U.S. military has a mistaken perception, then it is only natural for the Japanese government to protest and strongly request that it abide by the agreement. Even if it were the case that helicopters were not included, the agreement needs to be revised quickly.

    The Japanese government, however, has backed away from the problem. Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi has merely repeated the government's official position, and has not acknowledged that there is a discrepancy between the views of Japan and the U.S. on the issue. The Japanese government should reconfirm the scope of aircraft subject to the agreement.

    Low-altitude flights by U.S. aircraft have been confirmed in various areas across Japan. The National Governors' Association has asked the Japanese government to investigate the current situation to ensure that the lives of residents are not endangered, and has called for the SOFA to be revised.

    In Italy, the U.S. military acts within the scope of that country's laws, and in Germany, the Status of Forces agreement was revised to have the country's aviation laws apply to the U.S. military as well.

    Dangerous low-altitude flights put the lives of residents at risk, and could damage public trust in the Japan-U.S. alliance. The Japanese government should formally propose a revision to the SOFA, which currently grants a number of special privileges to the U.S. military in Japan.

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