Last month, as they have every year for decades, a small crowd of people gathered under fat cherry blossoms in Tokyo’s Aoyama Park, carrying red lanterns, placards and peace symbols.

From a distance the gathering could have been a hanami party, but the perfumed spring air is soon rent by angry speeches directed at a site behind the park boundaries: an elevated U.S. military heliport flanked by several squat buildings.

Amid the speeches, a U.S. helicopter clatters low overhead, drowning out the protests and showering the group with cherry-blossom petals. “Look at the size of that thing,” shouts one protester above the din. “What if it fell onto a school?”

Within the context of the huge military footprint in Tokyo: eight military facilities occupying almost 1,600 hectares, the 3.1-hectare Azabu heliport — about the size of Tokyo Dome — is pretty small fry.

But this base is not located on the city’s fringes like Yokota or Zama. It sits in its very expensive heart.

Despite the five-star address, the heliport seems to cause barely a ripple in the occasionally bumpy U.S.-Japan alliance. Most Japanese don’t even know it exists.

This indifference to the heliport and its strategic position on some of the most sought-after land on the planet only seems to further incense protesters such as Manami Saito, who say they have no idea what the base is used for.

“What other major capital city would accept a foreign military power right in its heart,” asks the 31-year-old housewife. “Why doesn’t the government listen to people like us?” She is one of several protesters who cite a 2004 U.S. helicopter crash on Okinawa in a university campus that was closed for the summer.

“There have been near-misses here too,” says protester Hiroshi Itakura. “In 1994 a U.S. helicopter was forced to land in the grounds of an elementary school here in Minato Ward. It’s just a matter of time before something else happens.”

By any measure, the base is an exceptional piece of real estate, sitting squarely in the richest part of Tokyo and within spitting distance of probably Asia’s most famous entertainment district: Roppongi. Applying an average market value for all of Tokyo from a standard reference, the property would be valued at $53 million. The true market value would be much greater.

According to Chalmers Johnson, author of The Sorrows of Empire, the facility is not even listed in the Pentagon’s Base Structure Report, because its official “plant replacement value” is below $10 million, the cutoff value for listing in this annual survey of U.S. military real property.

“It may be that it is omitted because it is embarrassing to the military,” says Johnson. “There are many such cases among the 737 officially acknowledged American military bases around the world.”

Critics, including some members of the local Minato Ward government, say the proximity to Roppongi is no coincidence. In addition to the offices of the Stars and Stripes newspaper, a landing pad and a gas-pump, the base houses Hardy Barracks, a well-known rest and recreation center for U.S. military personnel.

Military publications hail Hardy as a cheap, convenient pit stop for vacationing American troops. One says: “Hardy Barracks is located in Ropongi (sic.) (Night Life) district of Tokyo. The U.S. Embassy is about a 10-minute walk away. It is about a 20-minute walk from the New Sanno Hotel, making it easy for you to take advantage of their dining and entertainment activities.”

It continues: “Availability is normally good at Hardy Barracks during the week but more difficult Friday and Saturday.”

Is Japan’s strategic military partner running a rent-free, creatively accounted flophouse in the center of the world’s largest metropolitan area? No, insists U.S. Army spokesman Ed Roper. “We consider Hardy a vital facility. That’s the only helipad in Tokyo Central in case of an emergency. It is not true that it is only used for R&R. The lodge is there but it is only a small part.”

But Minato Mayor Masaaki Takei says one of the problems with the base is that even his office is in the dark about what goes on behind the gates. “We have been told in response to inquiries that the details of how the base is used cannot be released publicly.” The mayor and other base opponents say emergencies could be handled elsewhere.

It is the mayor and his staff, not the temporary residents of Hardy Barracks, who must respond to complains from residents, such as this one: “The noise from the helicopters flying low is terrible. My doctor is sickly and says she wants to move away. Can’t anything be done?”

Minato is particularly angry that the military has refused to return an extension to the base, temporarily granted in 1983 while Roppongi Tunnel was being constructed and for which the military demanded a 4,300-sq.-meter chunk of Aoyama Park; in one of the most park-starved cities in the developed world.

“We can’t help feeling strong distrust and anger about this,” says a letter sent every year by the ward to U.S. President George W. Bush demanding the “return of the heliport to the Japanese people.” It adds: “A foreign military base in the capital–is unprecedented for an independent nation.”

U.S. military personnel, who say Hardy Barracks is a “non-issue,” deny stonewalling on the base but admit the army wants to retain the extension and is currently in negotiation with the Defense Agency, not the local ward.

“We can’t negotiate with every government organization,” says Roper. “Those people who are protesting against the base need to bring that up with the Japanese govt. We use it under agreement. We haven’t been occupational forces since 1952.”

The assumption that underpins this agreement — that the U.S. military can bypass local hosts to negotiate with central Tokyo bureaucrats, has created tension elsewhere across Japan, most recently in Iwakuni City, where residents voted 7-1 last month against the expansion of an American base there. Tokyo ignored the vote.

The city’s mayor, Katsusuke Ihara, said: “Just because the national government has decided something doesn’t mean we must refrain from expressing our views.” He added: “I want the national government to listen closely to what locals have to say, then go about deciding national defense.”

Locals in Azabu say helicopters fly in and out of the base about three times a day. Busloads of soldiers also regularly arrive, particularly at weekends and military cars can be seen pulling into the base for a gas refill. “They’re occupying a children’s park,” says 79-year-old local Sokichi Ito. “They should give it back like they promised. It’s not even important to them.”

Larry Repeta, a college professor who lives nearby, is also angry: “Every day these choppers come in low over apartment buildings and children’s schools. It appears that the authorities just don’t care about the noise and the risks to the residents below. This brazen attitude of the U.S. military seems to be symptomatic of the relationship between these two countries. What ‘military necessity’ could possibly justify multiple flights every day over the heart of the city?”

Other critics go further. “The heliport seems pure American Raj,” says Johnson. “Indifference to the locals, showing off America’s ‘might,’ racism, belief that ‘we’ are doing the Japanese a favor by protecting them from nothing. Hardy remains where it is because the U.S. brass finds it convenient.”

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