KAGOSHIMA -- Amid the issue of U.S. military helicopters spotted flying over Japan's capital and the southernmost prefecture of Okinawa at very low altitudes, aircraft appearing to belong to U.S. Forces have also been seen more frequently in southwestern Japan's Kagoshima Prefecture.
A record-high 137 sightings of low-flying aircraft were reported in Kagoshima in fiscal 2020, about 1.6 times the figure for the previous fiscal year. Among them, 83 were suspected to be of U.S. military aircraft -- another record-high -- as of December 2020. While many of these were over remote Amami-Oshima island, low-altitude flights possibly involving U.S. military aircraft have also been confirmed over the prefectural capital of Kagoshima, amid heightened U.S.-China tensions.
Kagoshima Prefecture has kept a count of low-altitude flight sightings since fiscal 2006. Until fiscal 2015, the number of reports hovered between two and 37 cases annually, but from fiscal 2016, that jumped to about 80, hitting a high of 86 in fiscal 2016 and 2019. And then came fiscal 2020, with its 137 reports. Of these, 90 cases were reported in the city of Amami on Amami-Oshima Island -- up from the 39 cases in the previous fiscal year -- and 19 in the city of Kagoshima.
The prefectural government queried the Defense Ministry's Kyushu Defense Bureau, after checking with Self-Defense Forces bases and other parties on whether they had flown sorties on the same days and times as those described in the witness information. The probe found that 83 of the low-altitude flights were "possibly by U.S. military aircraft" between April and December 2020 -- up one from the previous record-high of 82 in fiscal 2019. The aircraft witnessed included Ospreys as well as C-130s and other transport planes. Their exact altitudes remain unknown.
Under Japanese civil aviation law and regulations, airplanes and helicopters must fly a minimum of over 300 meters above the tallest building within a 600-meter radius of the aircraft in densely populated areas. In less populated areas, the minimum safe altitude is specified as 150 meters above the ground or water, though aircraft are requested to fly higher than this. However, these standards have not been applied to U.S. military aircraft in Japan, due to a special provisions law based on the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA).
Kagoshima Prefecture accounted for the lion's share of noise pollution and low-altitude flight reports connected to apparent U.S. military aircraft in the Kyushu region in fiscal 2020, followed by Oita Prefecture at 26, Miyazaki Prefecture at three, and Kumamoto Prefecture one, according to the Kyushu Defense Bureau.
In response to the slew of low-altitude flights, the Kagoshima Prefectural Assembly in March unanimously passed a written opinion urging the national government to demand that the U.S. government keep its military's off-base exercises and training to an essential minimum, and quickly provide information on the routes and times of drills. This was the first time that a written opinion on low-altitude flights had been passed by the assembly.
Norifumi Jomura, 68, administrative head of citizens' group Amami bloc pro-Constitution Peace Forum, told the Mainichi Shimbun, "U.S. military aircraft are flying low even over residents' houses, making their windows rattle badly. The actual number of low-altitude flights must be greater than what was reported."
Hiromori Maedomari, a professor at Okinawa International University and an expert on the SOFA, said, "U.S. military drills have become more frequent as global affairs, including U.S.-China relations, have been strained. It's possible that low-altitude flights in Kagoshima are military aircraft engaging in refueling and rescue drills."
(Japanese original by Keisuke Muneoka, Kagoshima Bureau)