A U.S. Air Force F-16 dumped two fuel tanks into Lake Ogawarako on Feb. 20 after a fire broke out in the engine shortly after takeoff from Misawa Air Base, where it is based.
The fighter jet then made an emergency landing at the base, located in Misawa, a city in Aomori Prefecture.
At the time, about 10 fishing boats in the lake were collecting “Shijimi” clams, a shellfish often used in miso soup.
One of the boats was operating only about 200 meters from the site where the tanks splashed into the lake.
Although no one was injured, it is a serious incident that could have developed into a disaster causing civilian casualties.
It is the latest in a series of accidents and mishaps involving U.S. military aircraft that have occurred recently in various parts of Japan.
In Okinawa Prefecture, a MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, used by the U.S. Marine Corps, crash-landed in the sea off the coast of Nago and was wrecked in December 2016.
In December last year, an 8-kilogram window fell from a CH-53E helicopter onto the playground of an elementary school close to Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan, another city in Okinawa. In February, part of a metal engine inlet from an Osprey was found to have washed ashore on Ikeijima island’s Odomari beach.
In September 2016, a U.S. Marine Corps AV-8 Harrier jet crashed into the Pacific Ocean east of Okinawa. In December the same year, a Marine Corps F/A-18 Hornet fighter crashed into the Pacific off the western Japanese main island of Shikoku.
In October last year, a U.S. Navy EA18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft dumped fuel tanks into the sea off Misawa.
In responding to a question about the latest incident at the Diet, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the government had immediately asked the U.S. military to take steps to ensure the safety of its operations, identify the cause of the incident and prevent a recurrence.
But this is a familiar refrain we have heard countless times in the past.
The government needs to recognize the urgency of the situation and strongly press the U.S. forces stationed in Japan and the U.S. government to take really effective measures to prevent such accidents and mishaps.
It goes without saying that exhaustive efforts must be made to identify the factors behind the incidents by checking whether there was any problem with the aircraft in question and whether the maintenance work had been done properly and adequately.
It is also vital for the government to carry out in-depth examinations and analyses of the possible effects of related background factors, such as cuts in the U.S. defense budget, growing tensions surrounding North Korea’s arms programs and possible structural problems with U.S. military operations.
There are some troubling signs indicating that the standards and perceptions concerning safety within the U.S. forces in Japan are widely different from those among the Japanese public.
Stricter safety standards should be applied to military operations in Japan, a densely populated nation, than in the United States.
In reality, however, the U.S. military enjoys various privileges in Japan under the bilateral security treaty and the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between the two countries. These privileges allow the U.S. military to get away with risky and careless operations.
One example is that the U.S. military is in charge of flight control for a huge swath of airspace over the Tokyo metropolitan area.
On Feb. 21, the Okinawa prefectural assembly unanimously adopted a resolution protesting the U.S. military, saying Okinawa is not a U.S. colony.
The U.S. military, which has enormous powers, has the responsibility to make sure that its operations are carried out with the greatest possible care and ethical integrity.
The Japanese government should first urge the U.S. forces to fulfill this responsibility.
At the same time, the Abe administration should seek a sweeping review of the SOFA from the viewpoint of protecting the people’s lives and properties.
This is a mission the administration should tackle as the government of a sovereign state.