Photo/IllutrationParticipants attend a peace rally on Aug. 13 at Okinawa International University in front of Javanese bishopwood burnt in a U.S. helicopter crash in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture, on Aug. 13, 2004. (Shinichi Fujiwara)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

GINOWAN, Okinawa Prefecture--About 100 teachers and students gathered for a peace rally at Okinawa International University on Aug. 13 to mark 15 years since a U.S. military helicopter crashed on the campus, injuring three crew members.

A statement was made at the rally calling on the Japanese and U.S. governments to shut down U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma near the campus, which occupies about one-quarter of the city.

There are also concerns that little has changed with regard to Japanese authorities' access to sites of accidents involving U.S. aircraft, despite revisions earlier this year to guidelines originally established in 2005.

FADING MEMORY

"We can't accept that Futenma air base continues to threaten the peace and quiet of the university and community," Eiken Maetsu, president of the university, said in a statement.

Referring to a series of U.S. military accidents in recent years, Ayumi Miyagi, 22, a fourth-year economics student, said, "I feel strongly that many risks have followed us."

At the same time, according to a survey in July conducted by the university, just 15.9 percent of current students answered that they know the details of the crash.

Expressing concern, Maetsu said, "Sadly, it is also a reality that the anger of residents in the city and prefecture has faded as time has passed."

NO ACCESS

Zensei Arakaki, 66, a nursery school director who was a Ginowan city assembly member of a group affiliated with the Liberal Democratic Party at the time of the crash, was told by a staff member of the school about the accident in the afternoon of Aug. 13, 2004. He drove in the direction of the crash to where he could see black smoke rising.

"I suspected that (a U.S. helicopter) would crash one day, but ..." Arakaki said.

After working his way through a residential area, Arakaki entered the university grounds where he saw a downed and charred U.S. military helicopter.

When he started taking pictures of the scene with a single-lens reflex camera he carries on a daily basis in preparation for accidents, a U.S. soldier immediately approached him and demanded the camera.

Arakaki said to a Japanese police officer standing outside the restricted area at the accident scene, "An assembly member has a right to investigate." But the officer said, "We ourselves can't approach the site. Please stay away."

The U.S. military had cordoned off the area within an hour after the accident.

Hideo Hamakawa, 56, who captured the scene with a camera from a rooftop of the university as a member of the city's firefighting headquarters, who is now the chief, was also kicked out of the area by a U.S. soldier, who said, "There is a risk of the school building collapsing."

The barrier they faced was the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). Article 17 allows U.S. armed forces the right to police facilities and areas outside U.S. bases where there are accidents involving the U.S. military.

It is also stipulated that Japanese authorities will, in principle, not exercise the right of search, seizure or inspection.

Okinawa prefectural police and fire department officials were permitted to inspect the site six days after the accident. By then, the helicopter had already been removed by the U.S. military. Fire authorities could only investigate the cause of the accident using pictures taken by Hamakawa.

IS REVISION ENOUGH?

As criticism mounted over the situation, the central government established guidelines in 2005 for dealing with such accidents. They stipulated that aircraft itself should be under the control of the U.S. military, but that areas in the immediate vicinity of the site should be jointly controlled by U.S. and Japanese authorities. Areas outside cordoned-off space should be under Japanese control, the guidelines stated.

However, in October 2017, when a U.S. helicopter crash-landed in the Takae district of Higashi in the prefecture, police were only allowed to enter the site six days later, meaning the situation had barely changed since the accident at Okinawa International University.

The following month, Hamakawa told a Fire and Disaster Management Agency official who was visiting Ginowan at the time: "We hope to investigate sites soon after accidents occur, even if U.S. military officials are there."

Based on the latest revision in July 2019, Japanese investigators will be allowed to enter the inner perimeter soon after an accident has taken place.

Ginowan Mayor Masanori Matsukawa said at a news conference on Aug. 9 that he highly appreciated the revision.

Hamakawa echoed the sentiment, saying, "It's progress."

Still, the Japanese government will need U.S. approval to enter the inner perimeter of such sites.

"We have to keep an eye on U.S. moves to ensure that the U.S. side does not interpret the revision in an arbitrary manner," said Hamakawa.

Arakaki, who criticized the U.S. military over how it has handled various accidents and noise issues during his assembly member days, said: "Still now, the U.S. military holds too much authority here. We should establish parameters allowing Japan to take the initiative. Otherwise the situation will remain the same."

Arakaki added that he believes the SOFA itself should be reviewed.