By Kyoji Matsumoto
With the relocation of carrier-borne aircraft, Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni (located in Iwakuni City) now has about 120 planes, making it among the largest U.S. air stations in the Far East. The local community will inevitably have to deal with this huge military base from now on. What must be done for them to “coexist”? This series will offer a vision of the ideal relationship between the local community and the military base.
Urgent: Restart Japan-U.S. consultative committee for MCAS Iwakuni
On the night of June 2, the Iwakuni base was enveloped in thunderous noise starting at 10:00 p.m. Nine carrier-based planes took off into the pitch-black sky, each just a few minutes apart. That same day five planes had landed in the space of only eight minutes between midnight and 1:00 a.m. All the planes are thought to have participated in the deck-landing carrier qualifications (CQ) that took place off the coast of Kyushu during the five-day period through June 3. It will become commonplace for Iwakuni to be subjected to such noise late at night and in the early morning during carrier-borne aircraft training.
The runway’s hours of operation are 6:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. The hours were set by the Japan-U.S. consultative committee for MCAS Iwakuni, which is formed of representatives of Iwakuni City, Yamaguchi Prefecture, the national government, and the base. The landings that took place in the early hours of June 2 were outside the hours of operation. In accordance with the rules, the base had informed Iwakuni City in advance that “the runway may be used outside the hours of operation.”
Rules have become mere formality
The rules, however, have long been just a formality. In particular, the principles of “no training during the first three days of the year” and “no flights during the ‘Bon’ summer holidays” are generally not followed. Even if Iwakuni City submits a request for the base to refrain from conducting training or flights during these two holiday seasons, the base goes ahead with them, saying they are “critical for performance of duties”
There is another reason why U.S. military planes take off and land at the base during the New Year’s and Bon holidays: The base’s “aviation operations manual” permits training and flights during those periods. The stipulations in the manual differ from the agreements the base has made with the local community.
The issue of the manual was reported by Chugoku Shimbun in the latter half of February. After the report appeared in the paper, the base removed the manual from its website. The base said “the deletion was part of routine updating of the website,” but the manual still has not been reposted on the site.
After the issue with the manual, Iwakuni City initiated a review of the items agreed upon with the base. ”We need to thoroughly discuss this matter with the U.S. side as well as the national government. This will include looking into the language used,” said Mayor Yoshihiko Fukuda at a plenary session of the Iwakuni City Council in March.
No official action has been taken yet, however. “We are in the midst of administrative consultations. This is not something that Iwakuni City can change simply at its own discretion,” said Norimitsu Yamanaka, who is in charge of policy regarding the U.S. military base at the municipal government. This shows the difficulty of coordinating matters with the base and the other organizations involved.
Signs of change on the U.S. side
There are also signs of change in the base’s stance. On June 1, the Iwakuni base launched a new PR initiative to explain the role of the base to the local community. For the first session, it invited the City Council. In his greetings, MCAS Iwakuni Commanding Officer Richard Fuerst stressed “the importance of the Iwakuni base to the strong alliance between the United States and Japan.” He also responded to questions. The base allowed City Council members to enter some of the base’s facilities, including the control tower and the apron.
The base also permitted Jungen Tamura to attend the PR event. Tamura is co-founder of Rimpeace (a citizens’ group that monitors the activities of U.S. bases) and a member of the Iwakuni City Council, and he has not been allowed to enter the grounds of the base in recent years. Tamura said, “[The PR event] was meaningful.”
Base-related complaints submitted to Iwakuni City Hall numbered 903 during the month of May, a record number. Since the completion of the relocation of the carrier-borne aircraft at the end of March, Iwakuni citizens have been confronted with the reality of the roar [of plane engines].
How can the burden on the local community be reduced and their safety and peace of mind ensured? To respond to the change in the environment with the relocation of the carrier-borne jets, new, more effective rules should be written. The Japan-U.S. consultative committee for MCAS Iwakuni, which last met in 1991, needs to be restarted and made into a forum for discussions.
Under the slogan of “coexisting with the base,” Iwakuni City has stressed that the base is a “good neighbor.” Redrafting the rules from the local resident’s perspective is the responsibility of both the city and the base.
The Japan-U.S. consultative committee for MCAS Iwakuni is a forum for Iwakuni City, Yamaguchi Prefecture, the Japanese national government, and MCAS Iwakuni to discuss the rules of operation of U.S. military planes [at the base] and other matters. It was set up in 1971 and agreed on 16 items, including primarily the restriction of flights and deck landing practice training. In 1991, the frequency of meetings, which had been “held on a monthly basis” per the committee’s regulations, was changed to “held as necessary.” The committee has been dormant ever since.