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Editorial: Japan must take US military to account over jet’s mid-flight fuel tank dump

A U.S. fighter jet jettisoned two fuel tanks mid-flight, with one landing close to a residence in the town of Fukaura in northeast Japan’s Aomori Prefecture. Fortunately, no one was injured, but just a slight mistake could easily have led to a tragic outcome.

 

The U.S. F-16 fighter jet belonging to Misawa Air Base received a warning mid-flight that its engine’s hydraulic pressure had fallen, and the jet reportedly let go of the tanks ahead of an emergency landing at Aomori Airport.

 

The drop tanks fell in an area with a national highway where a town office is located and residences are dotted around. One came down only around 20 meters from the nearest house. The JR Gono Line railway also runs alongside the national road.

 

Even when equipment is being dumped in an emergency, it is standard to choose an area where damage appears unlikely to occur, such as over the sea or in an area without buildings.

 

Why did this happen? The cause must be investigated, and measures to prevent it happening again drawn up. The Japanese government has a responsibility to strongly take the U.S. military to account.

 

Initially, U.S. forces announced the tanks were dumped in an uninhabited region close to Mount Iwaki. The town of Fukaura is tens of kilometers from Mount Iwaki. They later changed their explanation to say that the pilot chose with their own eyes an area without buildings and people. But this is not an acceptable account.

 

Also problematic is that the U.S. military took more than three hours to report the incident to the Ministry of Defense. Last month, there was no report from U.S. forces when a water canteen dropped from a transport craft into a residential area in Japan’s southernmost prefecture of Okinawa.

 

Agreements between Japan and the U.S. stipulate that in the event of a U.S. craft being involved in an issue, it will be reported to Japan as quickly as possible. The government should seek compliance from the U.S. military.

 

In response to the incident, the Defense Ministry conveyed to U.S. forces that it finds it “extremely regrettable.” It also called for F-16 jets to be grounded until safety can be confirmed, and for a thorough investigation into the incident’s cause and measures to prevent repeat occurrences.

 

But the U.S. military started flights again just two days after the fuel tanks were dumped. How did they confirm it was safe? So long as there is no explanation, the understanding of residents cannot be obtained.

 

As long as the U.S. military continues to respond to incidents like this, it’s only natural that some feel that the lives and day-to-day existence of the region’s people are being treated lightly.

 

Behind these events is the wide-ranging special rights the U.S. military enjoys as recognized by the U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). A special law accompanying the SOFA exempts U.S. aircraft from Japan’s Civil Aeronautics Act, and the Japanese government is also unable to conduct its own independent investigations into the incident.

 

Every time there is an incident, the government expresses its opposition to U.S. forces, and seeks speedy information sharing and demands plans to prevent recurrences. But no visible improvements have been achieved. So long as the SOFA is not reviewed, the unease residents feel cannot be dispelled.

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