Photo/IllutrationA blue tarpaulin on Oct. 26 still covers part of grazing land in the Takae district of Higashi, Okinawa Prefecture, where a U.S. military CH-53E helicopter crash-landed and burst into flames on Oct. 11. (Go Katono)

NAHA--Okinawan police are expressing frustration at being unable to launch a full investigation into the crash-landing of a U.S. military helicopter in the northern part of Okinawa Prefecture earlier this month, a long-standing concern.

The continuing inability of Japanese police to investigate crashes involving U.S. aircraft is attributable to the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between Japan and the United States, which allows the U.S. forces total control over U.S. bases.

“The (agreement’s) key component that whether Japan can investigate an accident of that kind depends on the discretion of the U.S. forces is unchanged,” a Japanese official said.

The Okinawa prefectural government has submitted its own SOFA revision plan to the Japanese government. It contains a stipulation that enables Japanese authorities to be involved in the investigation into the accidents and incidents related to the U.S. military.

“Though the cause of the accident (of the U.S. helicopter) has yet to be clarified, the same type of aircraft flies above our heads. Even if national security is important, current rules are giving no consideration to residents at all. Do you think that such a situation is good?” asked a high-ranking Okinawa prefectural official.

The large CH-53E transport helicopter crash-landed in private grazing land in the Takae district of Higashi in the northern part of the prefecture on Oct. 11 after the engine caught fire during flight.

All seven crew members escaped injury. But the fuselage burned so severely after the crash-landing that it was completely destroyed.

Access to the accident site was immediately restricted based on the Japan-U.S. guidelines on dealing with accidents of U.S. military aircraft.

An “inner circumference restricted line” was set up around the area within a radius of about 100 meters from the helicopter, which was jointly managed by the U.S. forces and Japanese police.

An “outer circumference restricted line” was also established by Okinawa police around the area within a radius of several hundreds of meters from the helicopter to regulate public access to the accident site.

The U.S. forces’ agreement was necessary for the Japanese police to enter the area within the inner circumference restricted line. Okinawa police were permitted to enter the area for only about one hour on Oct. 17, six days after the accident.

During the time, police received briefings from the U.S. forces and inspected the scene of the accident. But they were unable to examine the helicopter fuselage.

Immediately after that, the U.S. forces began to dismantle the fuselage and hauled away all the wreckage by Oct. 20.

A stipulation related to SOFA prohibits Japan from seizing or investigating U.S. forces’ properties, including aircraft involved in accidents.

“In our conventional investigations, we check the wreckage to find possible defects or mistakes from maintenance work. But it was taken away. Now it is difficult for us to make a full-scale investigation,” a Japanese police officer said.

U.S. forces resumed flights of the same type of helicopter on Oct. 18.

When another U.S. forces’ helicopter crashed on the grounds of Okinawa International University in 2004, the U.S. forces cordoned off the area where the accident occurred.

Japanese police were not allowed to enter the area within a restricted line and therefore were not able to conduct an investigation. The police only sent papers on the accident to a prosecutors’ office without specifying suspects.

The Japanese police’s inability to investigate the accident became a concern, and, as a result, current guidelines were worked out in April 2005.

When a U.S. forces’ tilt-rotor Osprey aircraft crash-landed in the sea off Nago, also Okinawa Prefecture, in December 2016, however, officers of the Japan Coast Guard were unable to enter the area within the inner circumference restricted line.

Though Japan asked the U.S. forces for a joint investigation, it received no reply.