As US Military Flies Overhead, Okinawa Residents Live Under a Cloud of Fear

A spate of US military aircraft accidents, incidents and emergency landings have many in Okinawa fearing for their safety. The Japanese southern islands comprise less than one percent of Japan's territory by host roughly 70 percent of US military bases. (Photo: John Letman)A spate of US military aircraft accidents, incidents and emergency landings have many in Okinawa fearing for their safety. The Japanese southern islands comprise less than 1 percent of Japan’s territory but host roughly 70 percent of US military bases. (Photo: Jon Letman)

Last December 7, Eriko Miyagi was at the Midorigaoka nursery school in Ginowan, Okinawa where she’s a teacher’s assistant. Just after 10 a.m., as the children were preparing to go outside to play, they were startled by a loud bang on the roof. The sound came right after a US military helicopter flew overhead.

Like many Okinawans, Miyagi knows military aircraft well. “It was a CH-53E,” Miyagi says, recalling the morning.

Midorigaoka nursery school is just 300 yards from Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Futenma, a major US military installation that is often described as “the world’s most dangerous base” because it sits in the middle of a densely populated city.

When the principal of Midorigaoka climbed up on the roof he found a plastic canister with the words “Remove before flight” and “US” clearly visible. However, a military spokesman says a Marine inventory accounted for all such canisters and has not accepted responsibility for the object.

A 17-pound window fell from a CH-53 helicopter onto an elementary school playground near playing children.

Ryoko Chinen, the mother of two young children enrolled at the school, says that growing up beside Futenma, she always associated it with noise and bright lights at night, but was never afraid until the canister incident. With her own daughters (two and four years old) enrolled at Midorigaoka, she feels a sense of danger. Now, when helicopters fly overhead, Chinen’s youngest daughter has started saying “doan dayo!” (it’s a bang!).

Six days after the nursery school incident, scarcely two miles away, a 17-pound window fell from a CH-53 helicopter onto an elementary school playground near playing children. The impact sent debris flying, slightly injuring a nearby child, but a tragedy was averted — by less than 10 feet.

A third parent, Erina Kisei, has three children (five, nine and eleven years old) attending both schools. She tells Truthout the children have returned to playing outdoors but says that US military aircraft continue to fly over the schools.

All three women want the flights to stop and the bases to close and leave Japan.

Chinen asks Americans, “Would you accept objects falling from the sky over your small children’s school? Aren’t our lives as valuable as yours?”

Concerns about safety and noise are among the top reasons many Okinawans are opposed to the construction of a new U.S. Marine Air Base at Henoko in northern Okinawa. The new base is supposed to remove the threat of crashes in crowded southern Okinawa but opponents point to recent crashes near the new base as a reason to cancel the project. (Photo: Jon Letman)Concerns about safety and noise are among the top reasons many Okinawans are opposed to the construction of a new US Marine Air Base at Henoko in northern Okinawa. The new base is supposed to remove the threat of crashes in crowded southern Okinawa, but opponents point to recent crashes near the new base as a reason to cancel the project. (Photo: Jon Letman)

A Long List of “Incidents”

Aircraft losing objects in midflight is common enough that they have their own military acronym: TFOA (Things Falling Off Aircraft). The TFOA problem has been around for decades. In 1986 the Los Angeles Times reported “hundreds” of aircraft parts fall off Navy aircraft each year. Even when TFOA incidents occur, in certain instances they are not considered “reportable events.”

But it isn’t just TFOA that have Okinawans riled. The 2017 list of accidents, incidents, emergency landings and hard landings is long. According to the Okinawa prefectural government, there were 29 US military aircraft incidents including at least six incidents outside US bases, leaving many wondering when the next one will occur.

By its own count, the US military says aircraft incidents have decreased by one-third compared to 2016. According to Maj. John Severns, deputy director for public affairs for US Forces Japan (USFJ), the number of “reportable incidents” involving US military aircraft in Okinawa in 2017 was 22, compared with 33 the year before.

Severns stresses that safety is a top priority for the military in Japan. “Our commanders will not put aircrews or our local communities at risk by flying aircraft that we are not 100 percent confident in,” he wrote in an email.

US military maintenance crews work diligently to keep aircraft in “good working order” and aircrews focus on “conducting safe flight operation,” Severns says, adding that in recent years “there have been no near misses involving US military aircraft in Japan.”

Discrepancies in how Okinawa’s government and the US military track accidents aside, the Marine’s own air safety record prompted Marine General Robert Neller to describe 2017 as a “horrible” year of “horrific” accidents for the Marine Corps, claiming the lives of 20 Marines. The remedy, the general suggested, was an increased budget, as well as more training and flying time.

Undersized, Overburdened

US military aircraft incidents are nothing new to Okinawa. In the 46 years since political control of Japan’s southernmost prefecture was returned to Tokyo from the US, there have been more than 45 military aircraft crashes in Okinawa.

The Okinawa Times newspaper published a timeline of US military aviation incidents and accidents between December 2016 and February 2018 which documented 18 incidents in Okinawa, other Japanese prefectures, and overseas. The 14-month period includes the fatal crashes of a Navy C2-A Greyhound cargo plane east of Okinawa (three sailors died) in November 2017 and an Osprey crash off the coast of Australia in August 2017. Neither of these were included in the Okinawa government’s figures because they occurred outside the prefecture.

Despite the high-visibility incidents and accidents in 2017, there were no deaths and only one minor injury among Okinawa’s civilian population. However, in an email to Truthout, former Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama says the fact that no Japanese citizen has died in the recent spate of incidents was sheer luck. Hatoyama notes that with aging US helicopters and what he described as the “flawed” MV-22 Osprey aircraft, it is only a matter of time before more accidents will occur. For those who live in constant fear of the next potential crash, Hatoyama says, a sense of safety does not exist.

Hatoyama calls it “strange” that while Okinawa makes up just 0.6 percent of Japanese territory, it houses 70 percent of US bases in Japan. He believes a reduction of US troops is necessary, adding that even in the US he has heard people argue that an overall reduction of Marines in modern warfare could be a good thing.

Okinawans who oppose the more than 30 US military installations that it hosts cite not only air crashes, but decades of automobile accidents, pollution, noise, crime, sexual violence and environmental degradation, as well as being forced to play a role in a US-Japan permanent war footing. They see the concentration of bases and associated hazards as an undue burden.

However, others see the US military presence as vital and preferable to being vulnerable to a foreign attack.

“It’s less [of] a burden than being invaded by hostile forces,” Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asia Studies at Temple University in Tokyo, tells Truthout. “If you look at election results in Okinawa, it’s clear that there’s no mass movement to kick [out] the US and Japanese bases. It’s up to the Japanese government (elected by the people) to decide where foreign bases should be.”

The fact that these aircraft continue to fly without the consent of the people and at risk of these accidents … convey the message that the Americans are basically treating the Okinawans as second-class citizens or even worse.

Anti-US base protesters in Okinawa, Dujarric adds, “get too agitated. [The] fact is, the US presence is not a danger.”

Many Okinawans would beg to differ. Hideki Yoshikawa, director of the Okinawa Environmental Justice Project, tells Truthout there is an “urgent need to reduce the US military presence in Okinawa.”

One detrimental impact that is not so obvious, Yoshikawa says, is “the amount of time our prefectural and municipal governments and assemblies have to spend discussing US military based-related issues and drawing [up] protest resolutions.” Instead, he says time would be better spent coming up with and implementing policies related to local development and welfare.

Protection From What?

The high concentration of US military in Okinawa is also detrimental to military personnel who, Yoshikawa says, are forced to violate or ignore their own safety regulations.

C. Douglas Lummis, a former US Marine who has lived in Okinawa since 2000, tells Truthout, “I suspect that the terrific pressure being put on flight and maintenance crews may be having the opposite effect — stress leading to nervousness and hampering concentration. As a vet I feel sorry for the guys.”

He questions the notion that US bases offer protection.

“Protection from what?” Lummis asks. “Occupation by a foreign power? Yes, it would be terrible to be occupied by a foreign power. They might even confiscate your lands and build bases on them!”

Lummis suggests that what the US frames as protection is, in fact, only another form of occupation by a foreign military (the United States) that invaded Okinawa over seven decades ago.

“Please remember that the Okinawans have never given their permission to have bases here, nor have they been asked,” he says. More than 72 years after World War II ended, Okinawa remains a “dual colony of the US and Japan,” says Lummis.

Koichi Nakano, a professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo points out that US bases operate on land seized at the end of World War II, as well as land confiscated from the Japanese imperial army.

Nakano tells Truthout, “given the complex history of Okinawa, which was under American military occupation for much longer than the rest of Japan, the resentment of the locals in Okinawa has really passed a certain threshold.”

The current situation is, in Nakano’s words “unreasonable and unsustainable.” He calls the current path unwise even for those who do not contest the importance of the US-Japan security alliance. “I think there is a great deal of hypocrisy and lack of empathy, of course.”

He argues that the excessive concentration of US bases in Okinawa doesn’t really make sense anymore either.

“I think it’s really a fixation to the status quo, particularly among the Japanese elites and Japan hands in Washington — what are sometimes referred to as the ‘US-Japan security village.'” Nakano says.

According to Nakano, “the uneven nature” of the US-Japan Status of Forces Agreement, combined with a history of military impunity, crimes, accidents, pollution and danger from aircraft give Okinawans a feeling of being discriminated against.

“The fact that these aircraft continue to fly without the consent of the people and at risk of these accidents … convey the message that the Americans are basically treating the Okinawans as second-class citizens or even worse,” Nakano says.

Michael Green, senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC, recognizes that Okinawa bears a larger burden than any other Japanese prefecture and says Tokyo needs to constantly compensate for the burden with financial support. However, he adds, “that does not mean there is a practical alternative from the perspective of Japanese security.”

Green says that Okinawa’s geography “at the crossroads of the maritime tensions with China” and threats posed by enemy missiles mean that the US military needs more runways even if US forces are spread out. “Moving the [US] aircraft off [Okinawa] would be a bad idea,” Green says.

The plan to build a new Marine Air Base in the Henoko district of northern Okinawa is, in Green’s words, “the least bad solution — by far,” adding, “I do not see a credible option operationally that removes the airfield at Futenma without a clear replacement on Okinawa.”

New Year, Old Problems

However, even as the bases’ presence is debated, the incidents continue. The first month of 2018 started with three emergency landings in Okinawa: a UH-1 emergency landing and two incidents involving AH-1 attack helicopters.

Local concern over “precautionary landings” is understandable, USFJ Maj. Severns notes, but, he says, “they reflected a culture of safety and an emphasis on minimizing risk to aircrews and to the public.”

In a criticism as rare as it was mild, Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said he hopes the US military will come to better understand the Japanese perspective, and last October, made critical remarks about the speed with which flights resumed after a helicopter crashed in northern Okinawa.

Finally, in January, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis apologized for the repeated incidents. Yet many in Okinawa, including the governor, are looking for more than an apology: They have had enough and want to see more troops and aircraft (especially Osprey) moved out of Okinawa entirely.

A plan to introduce Osprey for use by Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) to Saga Prefecture near Nagasaki was in the works, but following a February 5 JSDF attack helicopter deadly crash into a home, questions are being raised about introducing the aircraft to a civilian airport.

Also in February, the US commander of an MV-22 Osprey squadron was fired due to a “loss of trust and confidence in his ability to lead his command.” The Okinawa-based 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Unwelcome headlines continued in February after a 29-pound piece of an Osprey air intake from a Futenma-based aircraft was found floating in waters off Okinawa. Then, on February 20, in northern Japan’s Aomori Prefecture, an American F-16 experienced an engine fire and dropped two fuel tanks into a lake about 100 yards from small fishing boats. Now the lake is contaminated and fishermen are prohibited from fishing.

As incidents occur one after another, they underscore the risk of military aircraft conducting flight operations continuously, day and night, year after year.

Shifting the Problem

The risk of operating aircraft out of MCAS Futenma over densely populated southern Okinawa is hardly disputed. Tokyo and Washington have repeatedly insisted that “the only solution” is to move Futenma operations to the less populous Henoko district. But protests have been ongoing for years and many want Futenma shut down (and cleaned up). Public opinion polls show fierce opposition to hosting the controversial Osprey, a tilt-rotor hybrid aircraft that takes off and lands like a helicopter but can fly at the speeds and distances of an airplane.

Fears about the Osprey’s safety were realized in December 2016 when an Osprey crashed just a few miles north of Henoko where protests rage against construction of the new base. (That base is ostensibly being built on the grounds that it removes the hazards from flying over the more heavily populated south.)

Ten months later, in October 2017, roughly 15 miles north of the Osprey crash, a CH-53E helicopter crashed in farmer Akira Nishime’s pasture just 100 yards from two of his employees and a thousand pigs and just beyond his home. A mile further was a school, a road and local community center.

Nishime, who has farmed that land since 1983, told a Japanese newspaper that he was meant to be in the crash zone when the chopper came down but just happened to be running late. After the burnt fuselage was removed from the land, a stain of burnt grass and tire treads was left covered by a blue plastic tarp. Nishime explains how his land was polluted with benzene and dioxin but was thankful separate tests found no evidence of radioactive contamination.

Nishime was forced to stop his farm operations for 10 days after the accident but says there has been no talk of compensation. Under the US-Japan Status of Armed Forces Agreement (Article XVIII 5.e.) it is the Japanese government that is obliged to offer compensation depending on the degree to which the US is responsible for the accident.

Nishime tells Truthout that he first wants an explanation for the accident. When Lt. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson of the III Marine Expeditionary Force presented Nishime with a “Certificate of Appreciation” for his patience and anxiety, Nishime sent it back, saying the gesture was premature as no explanation for the crash had been provided.

Meanwhile, military training continues overhead, most menacingly between 8 and 11 p.m., leaving Nishime and his community living under a cloud of uncertainty and fear.

Nishime points out, “In this village we have many households with 80- and 90-year-olds. If a fire breaks out, they can’t escape. So, does that mean they just have to be cremated right there in their homes?”

Frustrated by circumstances beyond his control, waiting for answers that don’t come and fearful of the very sky over his head, Nishime says, “Here we are living with the possibility of an American military aircraft coming down on our heads at any time for no reason. Tell me, what are we supposed to do? What would you do if this was your country?”