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US Forces stopped answering Japan gov't about military flight complaints in 2017

A U.S. Navy Seahawk helicopter passes near the 124-meter Carrot Tower in Tokyo's Setagaya Ward in this frame grab from a Dec. 14, 2020 video shot. (Mainichi/Hiroyuki Oba)

TOKYO -- U.S. Forces Japan has not responded to Japanese Ministry of Defense inquiries since August 2017 over whether flights sparking resident complaints were made by U.S. aircraft, it has been learned.

    Since then, the Defense Ministry has ceased communicating those complaints immediately to the U.S. military, relaying them instead once every three months, the Mainichi Shimbun has learned. And this change may have prevented locals' complaints from prompting improvements.

    The Ministry of Defense has heretofore accepted residents' complaints about Japan Self-Defense Forces (SDF) and U.S. Forces flights at its local defense bureaus or by way of local governments. Complaints filed by residents living near bases in Okinawa -- where many of the U.S.'s military bases in Japan are concentrated, Yokota Air Base in western Tokyo, and other areas are reportedly relayed by local defense bureaus to U.S. Forces at appropriate times.

    However, complaints from residents in areas not near U.S. military bases, such as central Tokyo, are gathered from local defense bureaus by the defense ministry every three months, and cases that have been confirmed not to be SDF flights are passed on to U.S. Forces the next quarter.

    Between 2019 and 2020, a total of 1,802 such complaints were reported to U.S. Forces. Some of the residents and local bodies that have lodged those complaints criticize the Defense Ministry 's response, saying it "should act more quickly."

    Responses to complaints about U.S. military flights were covered in the 1999 Japan-U.S. agreement regarding low-altitude flight training. In that accord, the U.S. government promised it would continue collaborating with the Japanese government to improve the communications mechanism for dealing with those complaints. There had since been cases where the Defense Ministry upon receiving complaints about suspected U.S. military flights, queried U.S. Forces about whether they had made them, and received replies several days after the initial filing.

    However, according to the Defense Ministry, the U.S. military has in principle stopped responding to such inquiries since August 2017, citing operational and other reasons. Therefore, the ministry says it has since changed its response, relaying only complaints confirmed unrelated to SDF flights.

    The Ministry of Defense acknowledged to the Mainichi that it had ceased concurrent, up-to-date flight-related complaint reports to U.S. Forces in favor of quarterly updates.

    On the merits of quarterly notifications, the Ministry of Defense stated, "There are various complaints, including some filed several days after the flights in question. By collecting complaints over a certain period, we can spot trends, making it possible to report a clearer picture of the truth (to U.S. Forces)." While the ministry acknowledged that it made the change to the notification method "in light of our exchanges with the U.S. as well," it withheld details of those communications.

    U.S. Forces Japan previously explained to the Mainichi: "The local defense bureaus are the first line of communication for the local public and municipalities regarding defense issues and concerns. From there, issues may be raised to MOD (Ministry of Defense), MOFA (Ministry of Foreign Affairs), or US representatives as appropriate" -- stressing that U.S. Forces have responded to residents' complaints properly in conjunction with Japanese authorities.

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

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