U.S. Forces Japan (USFJ) helicopters have repeatedly been flying abnormally low over the center of Japan’s capital. They pass directly over some of the busiest rail hubs in the world and weave between skyscrapers. And even as their helicopters fly at heights illegal for Japanese aircraft, U.S. forces have failed to fulfill their accountability for the flights. I would like to ask the American people, “If Japan Self-Defense Forces’ helicopters were to do the same thing over Washington, D.C. or New York, could you keep silent?”
It was like a scene from a movie. In the early afternoon of July 9, 2020, I was holding a video camera to film aircraft taking off from and landing at a U.S. military heliport in central Tokyo. Suddenly, two U.S. Army Black Hawks flew in low and circled the city center without stopping at the heliport. They then headed for an area packed with skyscrapers, flying between the buildings at about 200 meters high — about the same height as some of the buildings. Directly below them was Shinjuku Station, the busiest train station on Earth with about 3.5 million users per day.
Japan’s aviation laws and regulations set the minimum safe altitude in densely populated areas at 300 meters above the top of any building within a 600-meter radius of the aircraft. This means that an aircraft must fly at an altitude of at least 500 meters near Shinjuku Station, which is surrounded by buildings in the 200-meter-tall range. This is consistent with International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) rules followed by countries around the world, and is said to be the necessary altitude to avoid buildings and casualties on the ground in the event of an emergency landing.
U.S. military aircraft are exempt from this minimum safe altitude rule. This is because, in principle, Japanese laws do not apply to them under the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). However, SOFA also obliges U.S. forces to respect Japanese laws. Unless there are special military reasons otherwise, it is only natural for them to comply with Japan’s altitude rules.
Black Hawks repeatedly fly low over Shinjuku Station, going from there to Shinjuku’s Kabukicho entertainment district with its huge Godzilla statue, then over to Ueno Park with its beautiful lotus pond, followed by the Asakusa district with its old Japanese townscape, then to the 634-meter-high Tokyo Skytree. All are famous tourist spots. The choppers fly back and forth along this course at low altitude, and then return to base several dozen kilometers from central Tokyo.
U.S. Navy Seahawks also fly over central Tokyo. They fly over the lively commercial district around Shibuya Station, a magnet for young people all over the world, at an altitude lower than 200 meters, and pass between the skyscrapers in the office district near Tokyo Bay. At a heliport in the middle of the city, despite there being homes, universities, and art museums nearby, the helicopters would repeatedly perform “touch-and-go” drills — landing and then immediately taking off. Two aircraft would sometimes circle around Tokyo Skytree several times in formation, despite there being an elementary and junior high school just below.
There is no Japanese government-recognized U.S. military training airspace in central Tokyo. Why are these flights happening? USFJ did not reveal the flights’ objectives and replied that they were complying with their agreement with the Japanese government. However, when we released video evidence, the Japanese government asked U.S. forces to confirm whether the reported flights were true.
Our investigations also revealed that there had been many complaints from residents about low-flying U.S. military aircraft in the city center, and that the Japanese Ministry of Defense had informed U.S. forces of these claims. The Mainichi Shimbun was able to confirm 178 such complaints.
In the end, U.S. forces responded to the Japanese government that it had investigated the low-altitude flights and had not found any in violation of U.S. military regulations, which they say are consistent with ICAO rules and Japanese aviation law. If they are indeed consistent, then flying at an altitude of 200 meters over a densely populated area would be a violation. What are the U.S. military’s rules? What kind of investigation did they do? We keep asking USFJ, but there is no answer.
I would like the American people to see the video evidence we have released free of charge. It will show you which explanation is wrong: ours or the U.S. military’s. Some Japanese intellectuals assert that Americans consider Japan, which they occupied after winning World War II, to be a “protectorate.” I would not like to think so. However, USFJ repeatedly fly at low altitudes and at night in Okinawa Prefecture and other regional areas where they have bases, and they do not heed residents appeals for the flights to stop.
Regarding measures against the coronavirus, U.S. forces have broken their promise to Japan. They said they would take necessary steps consistent with Japan’s border control measures, but failed to conduct the required tests prior to personnel entering Japan. This is believed to have resulted in the spread of the omicron variant to Japan via U.S. military bases.
At the root of this problem is SOFA. Under the agreement, U.S. forces are not subject to Japan’s Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act and are exempt from quarantine upon entry into Japan. SOFA is a successor to another agreement that had preserved the privileges of the U.S. military immediately after the end of World War II when it was the occupation force, and hasn’t been revised since it was signed in 1960. In a Mainichi Shimbun poll in January 2022, 74% of respondents said SOFA “needs to be reviewed.” Distrust of USFJ among the Japanese will not easily disappear.
The importance of the Japan-U.S. alliance has been heightened by the recent rise of China and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Japan’s national security would not be possible without the power of the U.S. military. However, we know that the alliance benefits the U.S. side as well. A good Japan-U.S. relationship should also serve the U.S. national interest. I would like the U.S. public to know the disrespectful behavior of their military. And to tell them to obey Japanese laws at least in peacetime. It is too late to do so after an accident. I believe in the conscience of the American people.
(Japanese original by Hiroyuki Oba, Tokyo City News Department)