Accidents or incidents involving U.S. military aircraft in Japan more than doubled to 25 cases in 2017 from 11 the year before, Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera has said.
Onodera said Monday that the Defense Ministry conducted an assessment of the issue after he was told by U.S. Pacific Command chief Adm. Harry Harris earlier in the month in Hawaii that the number of accidents had decreased in 2017.
“Based on the information we have at hand, (accidents are) increasing,” Onodera told reporters. Another senior official said the ministry is not aware of what data Harris was referring to during talks with Onodera on Jan. 9.
Harris said at the outset of the meeting, which was open to the media, that the number of incidents had decreased from more than 30 in 2016 to around 25 in 2017, including minor cases, serving as proof of the priority the U.S. military has placed on safety.
The safety of U.S. aircraft and other military operations is a constant source of tension in Okinawa Prefecture, which hosts the majority of the U.S. military’s presence in Japan.
Analysts say that with a local election looming, Onodera’s remarks may be a show of support from the government for the people of Okinawa, who have been angered by the frequency of incidents involving U.S. military aircraft.
The outcome of the Feb. 4 mayoral election in Nago, the planned future home of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma — which is currently located in the crowded residential area of Ginowan — could affect the controversial base relocation plan.
The airfield’s relocation to the less populated Henoko coastal area is intended to put an end to safety issues caused by operations at the Futenma base. But Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga and many local residents want the facility to move outside the prefecture.
More recently, the Defense Ministry and the U.S. military have been at odds over whether the military flew its helicopters above an elementary school near the base.
According to the ministry, local defense officials stationed at the Futenma No. 2 Elementary School said they spotted three helicopters flying over the school last Thursday, despite a U.S. promise to avoid such flights after a window fell from another chopper onto the school’s grounds in December.
The ministry has also provided to the U.S. military security camera footage taken at the school to back up its argument. But officials insisted that no marine aircraft were confirmed to have flown over the school based on radar data and pilot interviews.
The U.S. military has also said the helicopters were more than 100 meters away from the school during the controversial flight, a Japanese government official said Monday.
According to the data, shown to an Okinawa Prefectural Assembly member the same day, helicopters were flying in an area between the premises of the Futenma No. 2 Elementary School and Futenma Junior High School. But the two schools are only 120 meters from each other, the Ginowan Municipal Government said.
The Dec. 13 incident, which did not result in any injuries, is included in the 25 incidents tallied by Japan. The number also includes a crash landing of another CH-53E helicopter near the U.S. military’s Northern Training Area in October.
Earlier in January, there were two other emergency landings by U.S. military helicopters in Okinawa.