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Who really controls the airspace over central Japan?

by Philip Brasor

Contributing Writer

A good portion of the airspace over central Japan has been reserved for the exclusive use of the U.S. military since the end of World War II, a fact that isn’t widely known in Japan. Over the past several weeks, however, it has become a sudden reality to thousands of Tokyoites and residents of Kawasaki who live below new low-altitude flight paths that bring commercial aircraft in and out of Haneda Airport.

As the Asahi Shimbun outlined in a January 26 article, domestic authorities have been seeking U.S. cooperation to allow joint civilian-military use of the Yokota Air Base in western Tokyo in order to handle the expected increase in international visitors, even if it was only during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. The U.S. military, which controls Yokota, refused to even negotiate the issue, even though they allow Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to share the base. However, they did finally budge on the matter of the so-called Yokota airspace, which extends from the Izu Peninsula on the Pacific Ocean to Niigata Prefecture on the Japan Sea, allowing commercial flights to use special routes that go through a small portion of this airspace in order to access Haneda, but only for three hours a day. The government was relieved, but others are upset because those routes go directly over their homes.

The transport ministry said the new flights were a “test” that ostensibly ended a few weeks ago, but it appears they were always going to be fully implemented starting at the end of March, and there was already an earnest movement protesting the plan before the tests started. According to a Feb. 10 report in the Mainichi Shimbun, a symposium was held last December in Tokyo’s Shinagawa Ward, where residents expressed their fear of noise pollution and falling objects. Two of the speakers at the symposium were Kiwami Omura, a representative of a citizens group that opposes the new routes, and former Japan Airlines pilot Hiroshi Sugie, who discussed, from a technical standpoint, how dangerous the plan is.

Both men held a news conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan on Feb. 13 in a bid to share their misgiving about the plan with an international audience. Omura pointed out that the worldwide trend is to move airports as far from urban centers as conveniently possible, but Japan has done the opposite. Although Tokyo has a dedicated international airport in Narita, Chiba Prefecture, it’s considered too far away, and so for years the government has been working to move much of Narita’s international capacity to Haneda, which was previously Tokyo’s dedicated domestic airport.

Sugie described the technical problems of landing airplanes at Haneda when approaches are made using the new flight routes, which demand a steeper angle of descent that is more difficult to pull off. One reason the transport ministry gave for the steep descent is the noise issue. A more shallow descent would probably mean a longer period of low altitude flying over larger swaths of the city.

Omura professed an inability to understand any justification for the new routes. According to the transport ministry’s master plan, it wants to increase the number of Haneda flights by 39,000 a year, 11,000 of which would use the new routes depending on wind direction at the time of approach or departure, which isn’t a big number. Omura doesn’t see why the number of flights can’t be increased using only the old flight paths, which are over the sea or unpopulated areas, especially since some airlines don’t like the new routes.

Many of Omura’s and Sugie’s points were made in the Feb. 10 Mainichi article, which also looked into the Yokota airspace issue, since any commercial aircraft that flies through it has to contend with the U.S. Air Force’s flight control apparatus that mandates a certain perpendicular approach for commercial flights. The government is compromising the safety of both commercial aircraft and local residents for the sake of its security alliance with the United States. A different Mainichi article that also appeared Feb. 10 mirrored Omura’s questioning of any need for the new routes: Adding 10 flights an hour at most isn’t enough of a reason to justify forcing them to fly over the city, regardless of wind direction. The government has been trying for so long to reclaim some of the Yokota airspace that now that they have access to even a small bit of it they may feel they have to use it or lose it.

According to the aforementioned Asahi Shimbun article, the U.S. military demonstrates little concern for the Japanese people or their safety as shown by their use of the heliport at Hardy Barracks in the Roppongi area of Tokyo, which necessitates low-altitude helicopter flights that are normally not allowed in cities under Japan’s Civil Aeronautics Law. This disregard for Japanese sovereignty extends to much of the U.S. military presence, and not just in Okinawa, where it receives the most attention. On Feb. 14, Tokyo Shimbun editor Shigeru Handa, who has written extensively about security matters, appeared on the web program Democracy Times to talk about the U.S.-manufactured tilt-rotor military aircraft known as the Osprey, which has a higher-than-average accident rate. Handa says that the U.S. has five Ospreys at Yokota Air Base that practice low-altitude flights at night in an SDF zone covering five nearby prefectures, but while the SDF rarely performs drills over populated areas, the U.S. military does. In fact, Ospreys fly anywhere in Japan for training purposes and the Japanese government never objects. What’s more, U.S. military aircraft can freely use some regular commercial airports almost whenever they want.

Handa claims most major media never talk about this, so the public has little context with which to understand these new flight paths over Tokyo. They may think the skies over Japan are free, but they aren’t. They aren’t even Japanese.

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