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Residents of Japan pref. fear crashes as low-flying US, other aircraft keep buzzing region

An aircraft flies above the city of Amami, Kagoshima Prefecture, on Nov. 16, 2021. (Photo courtesy of Norifumi Jomura)

KAGOSHIMA -- Residents of southwestern Japan's Kagoshima Prefecture are increasingly worried about possible aircraft crashes as the area continues to see numerous low-altitude flights, many of them thought to be by the U.S. military.

    The Kagoshima Prefectural Government received 131 reports of low-altitude flights in fiscal 2021, which ended in March this year -- the second highest number since it began tracking the statistic in fiscal 2006. The figure follows 137 reports the year prior, and as many as 86 of the sightings as of December 2021 were of suspected U.S. military aircraft.

    The annual number of reports was under 10 in the years after the government began keeping records, but it gradually rose, and had hovered at around 80 since fiscal 2016. In fiscal 2020, the figure grew 1.6 times from the previous year to 137 -- a record high.

    Low-altitude flight sightings in fiscal 2021 increased from the previous year in nine of the prefecture's municipalities. There were 90 reports from the city of Amami in fiscal 2020, accounting for more than 60% of all sightings, but the number declined to 45 in fiscal 2021. However, the city of Hioki saw 27 reports in fiscal 2021, compared to just five a year earlier. In the city of Kagoshima, the number of reports increased from 19 to 21. The city of Kanoya had no reports in fiscal 2020 but recorded 19 low-flying planes the following year. These indicated that the flights were spread over a wide area. The altitudes of the aircraft in those reported cases are unclear.

    Factors behind the increased sightings, observers say, could be ongoing U.S.-China tensions, and residents' growing interest in the matter, spurred by issues including a plan to temporarily deploy U.S. military drones at the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force's Kanoya Air Base. Japan's "minimum safe altitude" is not applied to U.S. military flights in Japan under a special aviation law based on the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement.

    Norifumi Jomura, 69, an Amami resident and the administrative head of citizens' group Amami bloc pro-Constitution Peace Forum, told the Mainichi Shimbun, "There are still low-altitude flights over downtown districts. Though the number of sightings in Amami has fallen, there are also cases that I myself forgot to report. I feel that there actually must be more low-altitude flights" than the official report count.

    (Japanese original by Keisuke Muneoka, Kagoshima Bureau)

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