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U.S. military aircraft accidents put Japan in difficult position

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A series of accidents involving U.S. military aircraft stationed in Okinawa Prefecture have occurred recently. If such accidents continue, they will inevitably influence the result of the Feb. 4 mayoral election in Nago, where the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station in Ginowan, in the same prefecture, has been an issue of contention.

Meanwhile, U.S. forces are beefing up operations with an eye on North Korea. With discontent continuing to mount in the prefecture, the government and the ruling parties find themselves in a difficult position.

In 2018, there have been a series of emergency landings of U.S. military helicopters in Okinawa Prefecture.

“Concern is growing significantly among residents in the prefecture. There is also a mounting sense of distrust, as the U.S. forces have resumed helicopter operations without sufficient examinations into the causes of the accidents,” Komeito Secretary General Yoshihisa Inoue said at a party meeting Friday, expressing his irritation to senior officials from the Foreign Ministry and the Defense Ministry who attended the meeting.

Last year, there were about 10 accidents involving U.S. military aircraft outside U.S. military bases in the prefecture. While this is not a significantly large number compared to other years, many of the incidents occurred at locations close to residents.

In December, a window fell from a large U.S. military transport helicopter onto the grounds of an elementary school adjacent to the Futenma base, while another U.S. military helicopter made an emergency landing near private residences after which a fire broke out on board.

“Since last summer, there has been at least one incident a month,” a senior official of the Okinawa prefectural government said.

Some have said that mounting tensions involving North Korea have increased the burden on U.S. forces stationed in Okinawa Prefecture, leading to a rise in the frequency of accidents. Lt. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson, head of U.S. forces in Okinawa Prefecture, said they spend a lot of time on exercises focusing on the defense of South Korea.

According to noise investigations that were conducted by the Okinawa prefectural government in fiscal 2017 until the end of November, the number of noise pollution cases early in the morning or late at night around the Futenma base nearly doubled from two years ago.

Former Ground Self-Defense Force Lt. Gen. Noboru Yamaguchi, who served as a GSDF helicopter pilot, said: “U.S. forces likely will be deployed to the Korean Peninsula at night. It seems they are increasing practical exercises.”

If U.S. forces stationed in Okinawa Prefecture reduce their activities, the number of incidents would likely decline. However, the situation is not that simple because the handling of North Korea by the U.S. forces is directly linked to the security of Japan.

When Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera met with Adm. Harry Harris, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, in Hawaii on Jan. 9, he first said that he understood that these accidents occurred amid very challenging exercises, and asked Harris to ensure that they were conducted safely.

Considering imminent risks posed by North Korea, Onodera could not merely single out incidents involving the U.S. forces. It appears the minister is struggling to handle the situation.

The government has implemented visible measures on behalf of residents in Okinawa Prefecture.

Onodera announced at a press conference on Friday that cameras were installed at the elementary school where a U.S. military helicopter’s window fell and guards assigned to the school to monitor the flights of U.S. military aircraft.

On Thursday, a senior official of the LDP Okinawa prefectural chapter hastily came to Tokyo to ask LDP Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai to take measures to prevent a recurrence of such accidents. Accepting the request, Nikai said, “We’ll consider all possible measures and make an effort to improve the situation at party headquarters.”

To enhance the effects of preventive measures, an LDP lawmaker with close ties to defense issues said, “The Japanese government should increase its involvement in the maintenance and inspection of equipment of U.S. forces in Japan after accidents.”

Onaga steps up criticism

The government and the ruling parties are accelerating their efforts to address the situation, partly because of the imminent Nago mayoral election.

The mayoral election, in which the relocation of the Futenma base to the Henoko district in Nago is an issue of contention, is positioned as a prelude to the Okinawa gubernatorial election to be held when the current governor’s term of office expires in December.

If incumbent Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga, who aims to prevent the relocation to the Henoko district, is reelected, the central government’s relocation plan could be delayed significantly.

In response to the series of accidents involving U.S. forces, Onaga has been stepping up criticism, saying: “The Japanese government has no ability to solve their own problems. The U.S. forces are acting carelessly amid a tense international climate.”


© 2018 the Asia News Network (Hamburg, Germany)

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