By Tsuyoshi Kubota
In the middle of this month, I visited a housing complex at Ajinadai in Hatsukaichi City, which is located about 20km northeast of U.S. Marines Corps Air Station Iwakuni (Iwankuni City). “It is hard to hear the TV,” said one of housewives chatting on the street that I talked to. “The noise is frequent,” said another. Just as I was talking to them, a U.S. military aircraft flew overhead. “It looks like our town has become a base-hosting community,” said one woman.
Ajinadai is not the only place subject to aircraft noise. After the completion of the transfer of carrier-borne aircraft to MCAS Iwakuni, aircraft noise spread beyond the prefectural borders, to places including Miyajima, a World Heritage site in Hatsukaichi, and Atadajima, a remote island in Otake City, which is located directly beneath the flight path of U.S. military aircraft.
In the western part of the Chugoku Mountains, under the U.S. military training airspace “Area 567,” residents feel the changes. Kitahiroshima Town tops other municipalities in Hiroshima in frequency of U.S. military aircraft spotted by local residents. “Aircraft fly so low I can see the faces of the pilots,” said one resident. “I hear aircraft noise almost every day,” said another.
A noise meter installed at a Yawata municipal branch office sometimes records over 100 dB, which is equivalent to the noise of a train passing underneath an elevated railroad. This level of sound is hardly ever recorded near the Iwakuni base.
Most of the training in the western part of the Chugoku Mountains is conducted by aircraft based at MCAS Iwakuni. The frequency of aircraft noise jumped last autumn when tensions over the North Korean situation intensified. Residents there have no means to check whether the U.S. military abide by altitude regulations on low flight training, which were agreed upon by the Japanese and the U.S. governments. Even if those rules are followed, they have to live with the risk of accidents and deafening noise.
There is a possibility of carrier-borne aircraft conducing more training. Before the Iwakuni transfer, carrier-borne aircraft were based at Naval Air Facility Atsugi (Kanagawa Prefecture) and conducted low-altitude flight training in Gunma Prefecture. In May, a Chugoku Shimbun photographer confirmed and shot photos of carrier-borne aircraft conducting training above Kitahiroshima for the first time.
Iwakuni and surrounding municipalities receive grants from the central government. But other areas that became prone to louder noise after the Iwakuni transfer and mountainous regions over which the U.S. military is conducting flight training are not eligible for these.
In May, the governors of the Chugoku region met and adopted a joint petition that urges the central government to take the “necessary steps” for local communities situated beneath U.S. military’s flight training airspace. But Hiroshima and Shimane, both of which suffer aircraft noise from low-altitude flight training, take different stances. Hiroshima demands a new grant program be set up, whereas Shimane refuses financial compensation due to concerns that accepting it could be seen as approving of the low-altitude flight training.
The frequency of low-altitude flight training in the western part of the Chugoku Mountains increased in the 1990s. Residents and local governments continued to lodge protests against the U.S. military and the central government, but the training was never terminated. The U.S. military does not accept the petitions, under the shield of the Japan-U.S. alliance.
But there are regions where sufficient steps are not introduced despite the fact that they are forced to shoulder a heavier burden after the Iwakuni transfer. In some areas, the U.S. military aircraft training may even increase.
It is natural for the central government to demand the U.S. forces reduce noise and cancel low-altitude flight training. Financial compensation is one realistic approach that can be taken. All of this requires the government to collect detailed data on noise and low-altitude flight training.
The central government and municipal offices measure noise related to MCAS Iwakuni at a total of 60 locations in Hiroshima, Yamaguchi and Shimane. But they must conduct noise-monitoring over a wider area and with greater precision. In places where low-altitude flight training is frequently observed, surveillance cameras should be set up. The central government must fully grasp the base-hosting situation and restrict training that causes anxiety among residents.