TOKYO — United States Forces Japan (USFJ) has concluded that its helicopters’ low-altitude flights over central Tokyo — flights so low that they are illegal for Japanese aircraft — violate no international or Japanese aviation laws, the Mainichi Shimbun has learned.
In its final investigation report submitted to the Japanese government, U.S. forces stated that it has not confirmed any flights in violation of U.S. military regulations. And it claims these regulations are consistent with International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) rules and Japan’s Civil Aeronautics Act, the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs told the Mainichi.
The report came in response to a Japanese government request that U.S. forces confirm the facts regarding flights. While U.S. forces insisted that no rules breach had been confirmed, it said it once again instructed all its air units to comply with the rules when flying.
The Mainichi has reported on the low-altitude flights issue since February 2021, with videos proving U.S. military helicopters were passing just 200 meters above busy Shinjuku Station, among other crowded areas.
Under Japan’s Civil Aeronautics Act, aircraft must stay more than 300 meters above the highest building within a 600-meter radius in densely populated areas. The altitude criterium is set in accordance with ICAO rules.
While Japan’s minimum safety altitude rule is not applied to U.S. military helicopters due to a special law based on the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), the accord also requires USFJ to respect Japanese laws and regulations. In February 2021, Japan’s Foreign Ministry requested the U.S. to confirm the facts regarding low-altitude flights.
Shortly after the request, the U.S. explained that no flights had been found contravening U.S. military rules, themselves in-line with the ICAO and Japan’s aviation law. At the same time, the U.S. asserted that it would not be easy to confirm the details because it had been a while since the flights in question. The U.S. had not provided a final answer since.
According to the Foreign Ministry, upon receiving the latest response from U.S. forces, it once again demanded that the U.S. thoroughly ensure the safety of their military flights. However, the ministry refused to answer the Mainichi’s questions about the details of their communications with USFJ, or whether it had confirmed the purpose of the low-altitude flights, as disclosing these would “concern our exchanges with the U.S.”
At the end of April 2021, the Mainichi queried U.S. forces about issues including its flight rules, which they claim are consistent with Japan’s Civil Aeronautics Act, and the nature of its investigation. The Mainichi also presented data it had collected including the low flights’ times and places, and videos of the aircraft over Tokyo.
The Mainichi has repeatedly asked U.S. forces for answers, even after the Foreign Ministry told the paper in November 2021 that it had received a final reply from the U.S. However, U.S. forces have not replied, and a public relations representative told the Mainichi in February this year that they had not yet formulated a response.
With more than a year having passed since submitting the initial questions, the Mainichi has decided to report on the current situation.
(Japanese original by Hiroyuki Oba, Tokyo City News Department)