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Japan's Defense Ministry notifies US military of loud flight complaints only every 3 months

TOKYO -- In many parts of Japan, the Ministry of Defense only notifies the U.S. military once every three months of complaints by residents concerning noise and other problems caused by its helicopters' low-altitude flights, the Mainichi Shimbun has learned.

    While the ministry said it immediately informs the U.S. of complaints in Okinawa Prefecture, which has a high concentration of its military bases, and other areas in the immediate vicinity of bases, in other locations it only notifies the military of complaints it has collected across three months. As many as 1,802 complaints were reportedly conveyed this way during the two-year 2019 to 2020 period.

    This image from video shows a U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter flying within the JR Yamanote Line loop in central Tokyo on Aug. 11, 2020. The helicopter flew behind the Ministry of Defense's 220-meter-tall antenna tower. (Mainichi/Hiroyuki Oba)

    Because the U.S. military has said the passage of time means it is difficult to confirm the facts of low-altitude flights reported by the Mainichi Shimbun from February onwards, including ones taking place only a month earlier, it appears residents' complaints may not lead to situations improving.

    Though it was known that complaints by residents of Tokyo's 23 wards were collectively relayed to the U.S. side once every three months, it has since become clear that other areas are taking the same approach.

    The Defense Ministry's regional defense bureaus accept complaints concerning Self-Defense Forces (SDF) or U.S. military flights either directly from residents or via local governments. According to the ministry, complaints in areas away from U.S. bases -- like central Tokyo -- confirmed not to have been caused by SDF aircraft are compiled every three months and conveyed to the U.S. side within the following three months.

    The ministry revealed that a total of 1,802 complaints -- 888 in 2019 and 914 in 2020 --were provided to the U.S. side in this way. Broken down by regional defense bureau and branch across the two-year period, six complaints were made in Japan's northernmost Hokkaido region, 28 in the northeast Tohoku region, 560 in the northern Kanto region of east Japan, 157 in the southern Kanto region including Tokyo, six in the Tokai region of central Japan, 18 in the Kinki-Chubu region of west Japan, 755 in the Chugoku-Shikoku region also in western Japan, and 272 in the Kyushu region in southwest Japan.

    According to Defense Ministry documents, many complaints came from Tokyo's 23 wards, as well as the prefectures of Saitama, Nagano, Yamanashi, Hiroshima, Shimane, Ehime and Kagoshima. Regarding why complaints are conveyed only every three months, the ministry explained, "Because various complaints concern flights from several days prior, collecting them across a certain time scale clarifies trends and makes it possible to give a truer picture."

    This image from video shows a U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter flying in front of the 235-meter-tall Shinjuku Park Tower in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward on Aug. 11, 2020. The helicopter later flew above the area around Shinjuku Station and headed east toward where Tokyo Skytree and other structures are located. (Mainichi/Hiroyuki Oba)

    But in Okinawa Prefecture where U.S. bases are heavily concentrated, complaints are reportedly compiled daily and sent to local U.S. military forces. Elsewhere, complaints concerning U.S. military airbases such as Aomori Prefecture's Misawa Air Base, Yokota Air Base in western Tokyo and Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in Yamaguchi Prefecture are relayed by regional defense bureaus to the U.S. side "when deemed appropriate," and the Defense Ministry also sends notifications roughly every quarter for reasons including "local areas' circumstances."

    While the Defense Ministry said that it passes on any findings to the local government that reported residents' complaints, questions remain. According to a local government in west Japan that said it immediately conveys residents' complaints to the regional defense bureau, it was not until June that they were informed by the ministry that the flights residents complained about between January and March this year were possibly by U.S. military aircraft.

    "Complaints touch on matters residents worry about," a local government official said. "The central government's response lacks speed, and the U.S. military never acknowledges that the flights causing complaints were theirs, even after four or five months of confirmation work. Room for operational improvement exists."

    The Mainichi Shimbun started reporting with videos the issue of low-altitude flights taking place in the heart of Japan's capital on Feb. 24, and the issue has even been discussed at the Diet. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga revealed that the government had demanded the U.S. side confirm the facts during a question-and-answer session on March 2, clearly saying: "It is only natural to have them fly in accordance with the rules. I will have (the Defense Ministry and others) respond thoroughly based on the facts." Minister for Foreign Affairs Toshimitsu Motegi is pushing the U.S. Secretary of State and other officials for thorough safe flight conduct.

    Meanwhile, the U.S. side has apparently told the Japanese government it is not easy to ascertain details as it has been some time since the reported flights, and also that they have yet to confirm any flights violating International Civil Aviation Organization or U.S. military rules consistent with Japanese aviation laws. The U.S. side's final position on the facts has not been made public.

    This image from video shows a U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter flying in front of the approximately 240-meter-tall Sunshine 60 Building near Ikebukuro Station in Tokyo on Aug. 11, 2020. The helicopter later flew in the direction of Shinjuku Station. (Mainichi/Hiroyuki Oba)

    The Mainichi Shimbun confirmed 24 flights by U.S. Army Black Hawk and Navy Seahawk helicopters between July 2020 and January 2021 that were lower than the minimum safety altitude for Japanese aircraft. The regulations set by Japanese civil aviation law state that in densely populated areas, an aircraft must fly at least 300 meters above the tallest building within a 600-meter radius of the aircraft.

    Because the U.S. side has yet to respond to the Japanese government's request for confirmation of the facts even after more than three months, the Mainichi Shimbun has released additional videos online as evidence of U.S. military helicopters' repeated low-altitude flights over Tokyo. The flights would be illegal for Japanese helicopters.

    In the first of the newly released videos, a U.S. Army Black Hawk is seen flying above Shinjuku Station at low altitudes between 10 and 11 a.m. on Aug. 11, 2020. The camera also captured the helicopter suddenly turning around in front of high-rise buildings while its light was blinking.

    It is clear in the footage that the Black Hawk flew lower than the top of the 234-meter-tall Tokyo Metropolitan Government's first main building.

    The Black Hawk was also seen flying between the metropolitan government's first main building and the 270-meter-tall NTT Docomo Yoyogi Building, located only about 1,100 meters apart. It is obvious that one or both of the buildings was within a 600-meter radius of the Black Hawk, and that the flight taken by the U.S. helicopter violates Japanese aviation law.

    Aircraft belonging to U.S. military in Japan are not subject to Japan's minimum safety altitude regulations due to a special provisions law based on the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement. But because the agreement stipulates that the U.S. side is obligated to respect Japanese civil aviation law and regulations, Minister of Defense Nobuo Kishi has responded to questions in the Diet with statements including, "U.S. military aircraft are not allowed to fly completely freely."

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

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