A large transport helicopter stationed at U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma burst into flames on the night of Oct. 11 soon after making an emergency landing on private land near the U.S. Military’s Northern Training Area in Okinawa Prefecture.
It was reported that no crew members or local residents were injured. However, there is a public road and a community in this area. People could very easily have been caught up in the incident.
The helicopter fuselage suffered major damage in the forced landing and was soon engulfed in flames, black smoke rising into the air. Video posted on Twitter and other social media testified to the severity of the accident, and local residents expressed both anger and uncertainty with the words, “Not again.”
The CH-53E is the largest helicopter operated by the U.S. military, measuring about 30 meters long. It is an improved version of the type that crashed on the campus of Okinawa International University in 2004.
The helicopter in the latest forced landing is said to have caught fire during a training flight. The U.S. military announced that it was an accident of utmost seriousness, and we must call for an investigation along with measures to prevent a recurrence.
Since Okinawa was returned to Japan in 1972, it is said there have been more than 700 U.S. military aircraft crashes and forced landings. The fact that Okinawa accounts for just 0.6 percent of Japan’s total land area while hosting 70.4 percent of U.S. bases by area is reflected in the large number of accidents.
In December last year, an Osprey transport aircraft crash-landed in shallow waters off the Okinawa Prefecture city of Nago — one of a number of accidents that have been concentrated in Okinawa Prefecture in recent years.
Until such circumstances change, it probably will not be possible to wipe away the anti-base sentiment pervading Okinawa Prefecture.
Residents have opposed the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to an area of reclaimed land off the Henoko district of Nago, and 20 years after Japan and the U.S. agreed on the relocation, it has still not taken place.
No matter how much the Japanese government underscores the “solid Japan-U.S. alliance,” until it solves the sharp confrontation in Japan over U.S. bases, the alliance will be plagued by a sense of uneasiness.
The current Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement states that the U.S. has police authority over its military accidents even if they occur outside U.S. bases, and that Japanese authorities cannot inspect sites without the consent of U.S. forces.
To date, the U.S. military has refused to conduct joint investigations with Japanese authorities for reasons including the protection of secret information, and so Japan has had no option but to leave investigations into the cause of accidents up to the U.S.
In the upcoming House of Representatives election, many of the opposition parties are promising in their manifestos to review or drastically revise the Status of Forces Agreement, and lessen the burden of hosting U.S. military bases.
The Japanese government has a responsibility to protect the lives of its citizens. If the Status of Forces Agreement cannot guarantee that, then perhaps there is a need to examine it again, including the possibility of rethinking it.