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Faculty Opinion

Reminiscent of Images from Iraq

By Ishihara Masaie
Professor of Sociology
Okinawa International University

   Last Friday afternoon, a U.S. military helicopter crashed into the Okinawa International University Administration Building in Ginowan City. After knocking out windows and destroying part of a reinforced concrete wall, the helicopter exploded and burst into flames. I was first informed of the shocking incident during a meeting of the Ginowan City Base Affairs Committee, of which I am a member. Mayor Yoichi Iha had just returned from the United States where he lobbied for closure of the air base. Our meeting agenda called for the mayor to report to the citizens of Ginowan on the trip, after which we were to debate a policy stance calling for prompt closure of the base. Before the start of deliberations, we were watching a video that reconfirmed the dangers of U.S. military aircraft conducting training missions over schools and densely populated residential areas. Another incident which happened thirty-two years ago, when a fuel tank from a U.S. military aircraft fell on a building under construction at this university, also came to mind. I was about to propose that we put the data of all accidents which have been caused by aircraft from Futenma on a map of Ginowan to make it easier to visualize the dangers more clearly.

   Just then, the mayor whispered to me that he had been informed that a U.S. military helicopter had just crashed at Okinawa International University. A moment later, my cell phone began vibrating,  so I left my seat to take the call. In a frantic tone of voice, one of my graduate students yelled into the phone, "A helicopter just crashed at the university, and there is a big cloud of smoke!" In the video we were watching at the meeting there were actually helicopters flying over Okinawa, and as I watched it wasn't difficult to imagine one of them crashing into a building on our campus. The meeting was immediately adjourned, and the mayor and the rest of the committee rushed to the scene. On the way, I telephoned the student who had just called me a few minutes earlier and asked her to be careful of any explosions, but to try get as close as possible and take some photos for evidence.

   For quite some time, I have been in the habit of saying things to my students such as, "One of these days a U.S. helicopter is going to crash, and who knows whom it will land on? It might be on me, or you, or somebody else you know," or, "Look at the way they fly. You know that when they are


up there training, they're looking at university buildings, cars, and students through their sights as the enemy."

   The haunting images that have been on television for more than a year now of U.S. helicopters attacking in Iraqi residential neighborhoods are so strikingly similar to what we see in real life everyday here in Ginowan. As they fly in circles over our schools and neighborhoods, the helicopter crews hone skills that are put into action in other parts of the world. Thus, when I saw the wreckage of the U.S. military helicopter before my eyes, it was eerily reminiscent of the images of U.S. helicopters down in Iraq that we have all seen on television.

   Futenma air base is so dangerous that in April 1996, the U.S. and Japanese governments had little recourse but to agree to close it down within five to seven years. The return of the base, however, became conditional on relocating it within Okinawa Prefecture. The Japanese government decided to construct a huge replacement military base for the U.S. on the northern coast of the island, but that area is precious habitat of the dugong, an endangered sea mammal on the verge of extinction. Naturally, this plan has engendered an opposition movement determined to block construction. Thus have plans to relocate the Futenma air base come to a standstill.

   Immediately after the crash, under the pretext of protecting "military secrets," U.S. Marines cordoned off a large area of the campus surrounding the crash site, including the Administration Building, and would not allow anyone to enter. They even refused entry to the university president. The soldiers just kept shouting "No Pictures!" One of my students had taken a few pictures with her cell phone, but decided to erase the photos as she was being chased by a U.S. Marine. When she later recounted the incident to me, an expression of fear and anger came over her face.

   Now that the Wartime Contingency Measures law has been enacted, a scenario such as this one could happen again at any time anywhere in Japan. Miraculously, no one was killed in this incident despite the extreme severity of the crash. At this point, if flights are not ended permanently, and the bases returned, I shudder at the thought of what lies ahead for the people of Japan.

This article is a revised and slightly expanded version of another article written in Japanese for the Kyodo wire service. The original Japanese article appeared in the Ryukyu Shimpo, the Okinawa Times, and other newspapers which carried the Kyodo press release. (U.S. Military Helicopter Crash at Okinawa International University. Kyodo News Press Release, August 18, 2004. )



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