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HOME  > Past issues  > 2017 October 25 - 31  > Japan-US SOFA-related guidelines hamper Okinawa’s investigation of US aircraft crash in Takae
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2017 October 25 - 31 [US FORCES]

Japan-US SOFA-related guidelines hamper Okinawa’s investigation of US aircraft crash in Takae

October 30, 2017
A Japan-U.S. agreement on accidents involving U.S. military aircraft prevents the Okinawa prefectural government from conducting soil pollution investigation in regard to the October 11 U.S. military copter crash in Higashi Village’s Takae district.

The Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) Joint Committee in 2005 established guidelines regarding off-base U.S. military aircraft accidents. Under the guidelines, two cordons are to be put in place around an accident site. An inner cordon around the immediate vicinity of the accident site is to be jointly manned by Japan’s police and the U.S. military. An outer cordon thrown outside the inner cordon is to be controlled by Japanese law enforcement officers. However, the guidelines state that access to the area within the inner cordon by the Japanese authorities needs U.S. consent.

Following the U.S. military helicopter crash, the Okinawa prefectural government repeatedly made requests to the U.S. forces for permission to cross the inner cordon with the aim of investigating whether the soil at the accident site was exposed to nuclear or other toxic substances. Nearly one week after the crash, on October 17, the prefectural government’s environment department officials were finally allowed to approach the site. They, however, were unable to collect enough soil samples to conduct pollution tests under pressure of U.S. military personnel at the site.

On October 20, prefectural government officials again entered the crash site, and they were forced to leave the site before beginning the investigation. After that, the U.S. military removed five-truckloads of surface soil from the site and transported them to the USMC Norther Training Area. Six days later, soil was again transported elsewhere.

In response to an Akahata inquiry, the Defense Ministry said that the ministry was informed by the U.S. military about the transport of soil and is now asking for details.

On October 27, the top-ranking officer of the U.S. military in Okinawa, Lt. Gen. Lawrence D. Nicholson met with Okinawa Vice Governor Tomikawa Moritake to make an apology for the crash. In the meeting, while stating that the removed soil will be returned to the original place after taking samples, Nicholson stopped short of mentioning where the soil is. Furthermore, the USMC commander in Okinawa called on the prefecture to wait until the U.S. military issues its findings regarding soil pollution.

Former Okinawa Bar Association President Arakaki Tsutomu said, “The crash site is on private land, not within a U.S. military facility. Under the SOFA, Japan has the authority to investigate and examine the crash site. Nevertheless, the U.S. military took the lead in the accident investigation. This resulted from the bilateral agreements that allow for unfair operations and lax guidelines regarding the SOFA. These agreements should be revised.”

Past related articles:
> Okinawans raise outcry against CH-53E copter crash in Takae [October 14 &16, 2017]
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