Commentary

Noisy assaults on living

by Kiroku Hanai

A bitter schism was created in the city of Yokosuka between those supporting and those opposing the stationing of the aircraft carrier USS George Washington at the U.S. naval base there. Calm was restored, however, when the ship actually entered port Sept. 25.

While the residents of Yokosuka have no choice but to believe American assurances of the safety of the nuclear reactors on the vessel, they face an even bigger problem with the noise created by carrier-borne aircraft.

I doubt that the governments of Japan and the United States have given serious thought to the dreadful noise that must be put up with by those living near the U.S. Naval Air Facility at Atsugi, Kanagawa Prefecture, and in Iwakuni City, Yamaguchi Prefecture — to which aircraft will soon be transferred from Atsugi.

Since 1976, Atsugi-area residents have filed a series of lawsuits seeking damages for aircraft noise and a ban on training flights. By the time the fourth round of litigation was filed last December, the number of plaintiffs had increased 76 times since the initial litigation named 7,054 people in eight cities.

Hundreds of takeoffs and landings at the base each day — as if the runways were a carrier deck — is agonizing for nearby residents. Citizens organizations supporting the plaintiffs do not believe those living near Atsugi will gain much relief from the 2006 Japan-U.S. agreement under which carrier-borne aircraft will be transferred to Iwakuni by 2014, since the same planes will have to come back to Atsugi for maintenance. Moreover, antisubmarine patrol planes of the Maritime Self-Defense Force will be relocated from Iwakuni to Atsugi.

Lawsuits are being filed not only in the Atsugi area but also in areas near the Kadena and Futenma bases in Okinawa; in Komatsu, Ishikawa Prefecture; and in Yokota in the western suburbs of Tokyo. As many as 6,448 plaintiffs have taken part in litigation involving the Kadena base, while the number in the Yokota area has reached 6,000. Although no noise suits have been filed in Iwakuni, citizens organizations are preparing to bring a case against noise as part of their campaign to prevent the stationing of American carrier-borne aircraft there.

Japanese courts have ruled against complaints demanding the suspension of U.S. military aircraft flights during nighttime and early morning hours on the grounds that the matter is outside of Japan’s jurisdiction.

At the same time, though, the courts have determined that the plaintiffs are entitled to be compensated according to the extent of their suffering from noise. The latter rulings have encouraged campaigns against the stationing of U.S. military bases in the country.

The noise issue is a matter of concern not only for those living in the vicinity of the bases but also for all taxpayers. The Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) provides that if the American side is solely responsible for damages suffered by Japanese civilians, Japan will bear 25 percent of the compensation costs and the U.S. 75 percent. If both countries are to blame, or if responsibility cannot be identified, compensation costs will be shared equally by the two countries.

In reality, though, the U.S. government has refused to pay its share of compensation awards to noise victims. Even though court rulings in favor of the plaintiffs at Yokota base area were finalized more than 10 years ago and the Japanese government subsequently paid all damages, Washington has not repaid its share to Tokyo.

In 2004 and again in 2006, Kantoku Teruya, a member of the Lower House from Okinawa, submitted to the Japanese government questions regarding the division of compensatory money for aircraft noise litigation begun in the vicinity of the Kadena base.

The government has refused to give a clear answer to these questions on the grounds that consultation with the U.S. was difficult because of differing views between the two countries and that raising the issue could risk endangering the relationship of mutual trust between Japan and the U.S.

If the U.S. can get away with not paying compensation, Washington will have no incentive to reduce noise voluntarily. The same can be said about the SOFA provision that exempts the U.S. from the duty to restore the original environment in and around the bases upon their reversion to Japan.

Although the governors of 14 prefectures where American military bases are located have repeatedly asked the government to seek a revised agreement, the government has steadfastly insisted that it would be sufficient to improve the manner in which the accord is implemented.

The military aircraft noise problem alone proves that the current SOFA has serious shortcomings, and that the accountability of American forces needs to be clarified so that additional disputes do not emerge. It’s noteworthy that the Yokosuka Assembly, which has twice rejected citizens’ call for a referendum on the stationing of a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier in their city, has unanimously adopted a resolution urging the government to work for an early revision of SOFA.

Under the existing SOFA, the Japanese government looks like a sheriff in a cowboy movie who feels incapable of carrying out his duties because of the threat from lawless gunmen.

In a policy speech delivered before the Diet, Prime Minister Taro Aso declared that a further strengthening of Japan’s alliance with the U.S. is a top diplomatic priority. In a plenary session of the Lower House, Ichiro Ozawa, leader of the No. 1 opposition Democratic Party of Japan, emphasized the need for Tokyo to maintain and promote its alliance with Washington, but added that he would seek to do so by consolidating an equal partnership between the two countries.

An election “manifesto” published by the DPJ stresses that Japan should become more self-assertive by amending SOFA and reviewing how the two countries should share the costs of realigning U.S. forces stationed in this country.

Both the bilateral Security Treaty and SOFA were entered into during the U.S.-Soviet Cold War. But the political and military situations throughout the world have since undergone drastic change amid economic globalization. It is only natural, therefore, to review and implement necessary amendments to the two pacts pursuant to these changes.

It is unreasonable to hope that diplomatic and security ties with the U.S. will be rectified by the Liberal Democratic Party, which has worked out many secret agreements with Washington over the past decades as the ruling party. The LDP appears unable to abandon the Occupation mentality of blindly following American policies.

I am convinced that the only hope for real reform lies in governmental change that can be brought about through the next general election.

Kiroku Hanai is a journalist and a former editorial writer for the Tokyo Shimbun.