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Japan informs US military of locals' helicopter flight complaints only once every 3 months

A U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter is seen passing at an altitude of around 200 meters through an area with tall buildings in Shinjuku, Tokyo, on Dec. 4, 2020, in this image taken from video. (Mainichi/Hiroyuki Oba)

TOKYO -- Amid the issue of repeated low-altitude flights over central Tokyo by U.S. military craft, it has emerged that the Japanese Ministry of Defense -- which accepts complaints about U.S. military flights -- only informs American forces of the complaints from residents of Tokyo's 23 special wards once every three months.

    In response to Mainichi Shimbun reporting on low-altitude flights dating even a month back, the U.S. military has said that the passage of time makes it difficult to confirm whether they took place. The Ministry of Defense's compilation of three months' worth of complaints suggests it's highly unlikely they will bring a solution to the issue. One resident who has submitted complaints criticized their handling, saying, "They should relay them much more quickly."

    The Ministry of Defense's regional defense bureaus accept complaints from residents and municipal authorities regarding flights by the Japan Self-Defense Forces (SDF) and U.S. military, and complaints confirmed not applicable to the SDF are sent to U.S. forces. According to a ministry-made list of the complaints, 178 coming from Tokyo's 23 special wards and relayed to the U.S. military from fiscal 2017 onwards have concerned helicopters. Many of them mention the shaking or loud noises that come with low-altitude flights, as well as feelings of fear. Even after the complaints, problematic flights have continued.

    In response to inquiries from the Mainichi Shimbun, the defense ministry said, "To mitigate as much as possible the effect on local areas, we have sought consideration (from the U.S. military)." But, regarding the timing in which complaints are forwarded, they said, "Following confirmation work, we notify the U.S. side within the next three months."

    When asked why this was so, they said, "There are cases when complaints come some days after (the offending flights). Although it is possible for us to let the U.S. side know in each case, by collecting complaints on a fixed timescale, trends emerge, and we are able to more clearly communicate the state of the issues to the U.S. side."

    A U.S. Navy Seahawk helicopter is seen flying between tall buildings in Shinjuku, Tokyo, on Jan. 20, 2021. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government No. 1 Building, measuring about 243 meters high, can be seen on the left of the frame. (Mainichi/Hiroyuki Oba)

    Between July 2020 and January this year, the Mainichi Shimbun recorded 24 low-altitude flights, and three flights that appeared to involve dangerous training maneuvers. From Feb. 24, it has reported on the flights with articles including videos.

    The cases include 10 flights in the last three months, but according to the Japanese government, which is asking the U.S. military to confirm the facts of the reports, they received an explanation that, "It isn't easy to confirm detailed facts" on the grounds that time has passed since the flights. If the U.S. side takes the same stance again, it will show that the ministry's notifications aren't having an effect.

    A 62-year-old man living in the capital's Setagaya Ward, who sent complaints last summer about U.S. helicopter flights to the Ministry of Defense, touched on his own experience of being involved in a private firm's handling of complaints when he said, "It's desirable for them (complaints) to be dealt with as soon as can be."

    The man's complaint is among the 178 relayed to the U.S. military. He expressed skepticism about the ministry's tardiness in responding, saying, "As time passes the flight records might be deleted. I want the Ministry of Defense and the U.S. military to respond properly to residents' complaints, but I wonder if they won't do it unless there's an instance where an aircraft comes down."

    (Japanese original by Hiroyuki Oba, Tokyo City News Department)

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