National

Japan challenges U.S. denial of school flyover with video footage from Okinawa

Kyodo

Tokyo doubled down Friday on its accusation that the U.S. Marine Corps flouted safety concerns by flying choppers above a school near a U.S. air base in Okinawa the previous day.

“As you can see from the video footage, the helicopters’ underbellies are clearly visible as they flew by,” Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said the same day, referring to video shot from Futenma No. 2 Elementary School in Ginowan.

The U.S. military has promised to try to prevent such flights after a window from a CH-53E chopper fell on the grounds of the school on Dec. 13, nearly hitting children. The U.S. side denied Thursday’s flight took place case, based on the accounts of crewmen and on radar data.

“Children, teachers and parents will certainly be worried. This is the kind of flight we don’t want to see,” the minister said. Onodera also said he will continue to urge the U.S. military to avoid flying over schools just outside unpopular Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.

Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga expressed his strong disappointment over what he said was a “broken promise.”

“It is completely outrageous,” Onaga said at a news conference.

“It’s deplorable that this has happened even though we’ve requested firmly that the U.S. not fly above the school,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said at Thursday’s news conference in Tokyo.

Local concerns are deepening over accidents and mishaps involving U.S. aircraft in Okinawa, where the bulk of U.S. military forces in Japan are stationed.

The Okinawa Prefectural Assembly on Friday adopted documents demanding the suspension of the Futenma base by February next year and the removal of the marines from the prefecture, since many of the incident-prone aircraft fly from the base.

The Ginowan education board called the situation “outrageous” and urged the U.S. military to “keep its promise.”

Nobody was injured in the Dec. 13 incident, but local residents were incensed because the 7.7-kg window landed only meters from where more than 50 children were taking part in physical education activities.

Afterward, the U.S. Marine Corps in Okinawa said it instructed all aircraft crews taking off and landing at the Futenma base to avoid flying over schools to the “greatest extent possible,” according to the Japanese Defense Ministry.

The ministry, for its part, has installed security cameras at the school and instructed local officials from the defense bureau to watch for any U.S. aircraft.

On Thursday afternoon, cameras and defense officials spotted two AH-1 attack helicopters and one UH-1 multipurpose helicopter flying over the school, according to the ministry, prompting it to lodge an immediate protest.

Onodera said Friday that the ministry has asked the U.S. military to again confirm the circumstances of the flights using footage shot from its cameras at the school.

No children were on the playground when the three helicopters passed over on Thursday. Earlier, students were evacuated from the area during a drill that was carried out in response to the window incident.