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Editorial: When will Tokyo care about U.S. military mishaps in Okinawa?

  • September 4, 2019
  • , The Asahi Shimbun , 12:50 p.m.
  • English Press

Had the latest U.S. military helicopter mishap in Okinawa occurred in Tokyo instead, would that still not have made any difference in the government’s handling of the incident?


On Aug. 27, a CH-53E helicopter from U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan was flying over the sea off the east coast of the main island of Okinawa Prefecture when the chopper’s plastic window, weighing about 1 kilogram, became dislodged and fell into the sea.


Details of the accident have not been disclosed.


Prefectural authorities called for an investigation and temporary grounding of CH-53Es. But Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya said in a news conference that he had no intention of making such requests of the U.S. military, citing the “absence of any reports of damage” as his reason.


Iwaya’s attitude was unthinkable for any Japanese government representative who should be protecting the lives and property of Japanese citizens.


It reminded us of what happened in January 2018: During a plenary session of the Lower House, an opposition lawmaker was heckled for criticizing the government’s handling of a spate of accidents involving U.S. military aircraft in Okinawa.


The heckler was Fumiaki Matsumoto, senior vice minister of the Cabinet Office at the time, who was forced to resign after yelling mockingly, “How many people have been killed in those incidents?”


In essence, Iwaya’s comment was no different from Matsumoto’s.


Iwaya displayed a total lack of sympathy with Okinawans who are surrounded by U.S. bases and forced to endure, day in and day out, the deafening noises of the aircraft and the constant danger of something falling from the sky.


There has been no end to accidents involving CH-53E helicopters based at Futenma. In October 2017, a chopper crash-landed in the Takae district of Higashi village in the prefecture and burst into flames. Two months later, an 8-kilogram window became dislodged from another aircraft and fell on to the playground of an elementary school in Ginowan.


The causes of these mishaps have been attributed to the aging and shoddy maintenance of the aircraft, but the Japanese government has yet to come up with any effective countermeasure.


Since as recent as 2014, there have been a whopping 24 instances–including the latest on Aug. 27–of components falling from aircraft belonging to the U.S. military based in Okinawa, according to the prefectural government.


In the latest case, moreover, there was even a significant delay in reporting the accident.


The incident was said to have occurred around 5:30 p.m. on Aug. 27, but the Defense Ministry heard nothing from the U.S. Embassy until the night of Aug. 28. And it wasn’t until 5 p.m. on Aug. 29 when the Okinawa prefectural government was notified via the Defense Ministry’s Okinawa Defense Bureau.


Under an agreement of the Japan-U.S. Joint Committee, the United States is to notify Tokyo immediately of the time, place and extent of damage of such an accident. The notification can also be made directly by the U.S. military to the Okinawa Defense Bureau.


But neither of these arrangements functioned, and it took a full day for the notice from Tokyo to reach Okinawa. Tokyo explained that this delay was due to the length of time needed to confirm the incident. But surely, Okinawa should have been notified the moment Tokyo learned of the accident.


Whenever any problem arises that involves U.S. military units based at Futenma, the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wastes no time in pointing out, “That’s why the relocation to Henoko must be rushed.”


But such an argument is nothing more than an excuse to shift any source of danger and anxiety from one location to another within Okinawa Prefecture.


In the July Upper House election, a new, independent candidate opposing the relocation to Henoko beat a newcomer fielded by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, proving that the will of the people of Okinawa remains unchanged.


The issue is not about a choice between Futenma and Henoko. It is about the fundamental question of how to reduce the burden, borne by the entire population of Okinawa, of having to host U.S. military bases. The Japanese government must devote its entire energy to resolving this basic problem.

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