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Japan reported 178 complaints to US military about low-flying helicopters but to no avail

TOKYO -- Regarding the issue of U.S. military helicopters flying in central Tokyo at low altitudes that would be illegal for Japanese aircraft, Japan's Defense Ministry notified the U.S. military about a total of 178 complaints concerning noise and other disturbances possibly caused by U.S. military helicopters, which it received from residents and others in the capital's 23 wards since the 2017 fiscal year, the Mainichi Shimbun has learned.

    The information was disclosed in documents compiled by the Ministry of Defense.

    After circling an urban area within the JR Yamanote loop line, a U.S. Navy Seahawk helicopter flies above a shopping district spanning Shibuya and Minato wards toward the northwest on Dec. 14, 2020, in this screen capture from video footage. (Mainichi/Hiroyuki Oba)

    Many of the complaints are about the low-altitude flights, and some of them match up in time and place with flights that have been recorded by the Mainichi. Problematic flights have continued even after the complaints were lodged with the U.S. military, pointing to the possibility that moves made by the Defense Ministry, including the notification of complaints from local residents, have not helped put an end to the flights.

    The Defense Ministry gathers complaints about flights conducted by Japan's Self-Defense Forces (SDF) and the U.S. military from residents and local governments through local defense bureaus. When the complaints are confirmed not to be about the SDF, the contents of the complaints are communicated to the U.S. military.

    According to a list of complaints that the ministry disclosed to the Mainichi, of the complaint notifications the ministry sent to the U.S. military, 213 were regarding flights in Tokyo's 23 wards between April 2017 and December 2020. Of the 213 complaints, 178 were about helicopters, with 140 filed in Setagaya Ward, nine in Suginami Ward, eight in Shinjuku Ward and six in Shibuya Ward. The numbers are high in Setagaya apparently because it is on a round-trip route taken by helicopters between a heliport in Tokyo's Roppongi district and U.S. military bases in Tokyo metropolitan areas such as Yokota Air Base in western Tokyo, and also presumably because there were residents who were committed to filing complaints frequently. In fiscal 2017 and fiscal 2018, there were eight and 29 cases, respectively, and in fiscal 2019, the number jumped to 121. Between April and December of 2020, there were 20.

    In addition to expressing anxiety over roaring noise and fears of falling parts from aircraft early in the morning and at night, common complaints were about low-altitude flights. One resident said, "I am scared of helicopters flying about 50 to 100 meters away from the fifth floor of our condo." There were multiple cases in which those who reported low-altitude flights also had information that could lead to the identification of aircraft, such as symbols and letters they saw on the aircraft.

    "When I see U.S. military aircraft fly at low altitudes, frightening memories of the war come rushing back." Among the complaints from local residents compiled by the Defense Ministry were some that were filled with desperation, as seen in this photo taken in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on April 7, 2021. (Mainichi/Junichi Sasaki)

    Between July 2020 and January 2021, the Mainichi confirmed low-altitude flights by U.S. military helicopters 24 times, flights that are believed to have been drills that involved high risks three times. It has been carrying reports on the flights along with video footage since February of this year. Complaints about two of the cases that the Mainichi covered had been reported by residents to the Defense Ministry.

    One was of a U.S. Navy Seahawk that circled at a low altitude in an area near Shibuya Station in Tokyo's Shibuya Ward and within the loop that the JR Yamanote Line comprises, after 1 p.m. on Dec. 14, 2020. Residents contacted authorities at 1:33 p.m. and reported that it was unclear whether it was the SDF or the U.S. military, but that a helicopter was flying at a low altitude from the south to the north and was making a lot of noise in Shibuya Ward. The other case was one in which two Seahawk aircraft approached very close to Tokyo Skytree in the capital's Sumida Ward after 4 p.m. on Aug. 27, 2020. Between 4:15 p.m. and 4:20 p.m., residents contacted authorities and complained that two gray aircraft were circling the area around Asakusa at a low altitude and were very loud. They said, "It's frightening for those who are elderly."

    The Japanese government is seeking that the U.S. military fact check these cases. Japan says that it has been given the explanation that "Some time has already passed since the flights that were reported (in February), so it will not be easy to confirm the detailed facts," but it is unclear how the U.S. military had been responding to the Defense Ministry's notifications about complaints from local residents, of which it had already been notified.

    The Defense Ministry told the Mainichi, "Along with communicating the contents of residents' complaints to the U.S. military, we are seeking that the U.S. military keep their impact on local residents to a minimum."

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

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