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SOFA: Are airliners not free to fly in Tokyo skies?

The Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement, or “SOFA” for short, does not only concern Okinawa. In Tokyo, there’s the U.S. military’s Yokota base. Airspace in the periphery of the U.S. base is under the control of U.S. forces, and Japanese airlines are not even allowed to fly through that airspace. This SOFA pact sometimes affects interactions with foreign countries.


Haneda airport—the gateway to Japan’s metropolitan capital of Tokyo—is now aiming to establish new flight routes for low-altitude passage over the heart of Tokyo in order to meet the increasing number of inbound visitors from abroad. The government has set an annual target of Japan welcoming 40 million visitors by 2020 when Japan will host the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games. The government is planning to increase the maximum number of daytime slots of international flights for Haneda from 60,000 to 99,000 by efficiently using Haneda’s four runways.


However, there is the “wall” of Yokota airspace standing in the way.


According to the new routing plan, flights to Haneda will have to enter the Yokota airspace for several minutes in the skies over the city of Saitama in Saitama Prefecture and over the Tokyo metropolitan ward of Nerima, depending on whether conditions or which of the four runways to use. The Japanese government is seeking to conduct the air traffic control for these several minutes without handing it over to U.S. forces, citing safety as the reason. According to a government official, coordination is continuing at subcommittee meetings of the Japan-U.S. Joint Committee.


An aircraft, when passing through the Yokota airspace on a new route, is thought to be already gearing down for the approach to Haneda. This is part of the “dangerous 11 minutes” (3 minutes after taking off and 8 minutes before landing) when aircraft accidents are prone to occur. “I’ve never heard of an airport that hands over air traffic control right before landing.” So saying, an official of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism voiced concern. Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya met the press on Jan. 29 and said, “In my understanding, final coordination is underway (between the Japanese and U.S. governments) to reach an agreement.”


Toru Aketagawa, a professor at Hosei University, who is familiar with the SOFA, says: “Unlike any other country, Japan gives a foreign country this degree of control of air traffic over its capital. Japan cannot decide itself on a major airport’s flight route that has a serious impact on people’s lives. That’s abnormal. As far as the skies are concerned, you may well say Japan is still under occupation.”


The SOFA pact was also brought up in Japan-Russia negotiations for a peace treaty. Russia fears that if it returns the Northern Territories to Japan, U.S. forces could locate bases there under the SOFA pact. Japan is therefore being urged to clarify its standpoint so it can dispel Russia’s concern.


Meanwhile, Japan, in 2009, concluded a status of forces agreement with the East African nation of Djibouti, where the Self-Defense Forces base troops. This agreement stipulates that in case SDF members become involved in incidents or accidents [in Djibouti], Japan has criminal jurisdiction over them, regardless of whether they were on duty, and this agreement is said to be substantively advantageous to Japan.

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