Why is Futenma still open? Protesters slam government inaction, 15 years after chopper crash

Fifteen years after a U.S. military helicopter crashed onto the premises of a university in Okinawa, protesters renewed a call for the closure of a nearby base.

The crowd of around 150 university staff, students and others gathered near the stump of a tree that was charred in the crash.

They called for the closure of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, which residents say blights their lives. They cite noise from aircraft and the fear of repeat accidents.

Eiken Maetsu, president of Okinawa International University, addressed the gathering. He called for action by the Japanese and U.S. governments.

Maetsu reminded the crowd of a 2017 incident in which a part fell from a U.S. helicopter onto the grounds of an elementary school in the city.

“It was a serious accident that could have been life-threatening with just one step in the wrong direction,” he said. “I strongly demand that the Japanese and U.S. governments immediately remove and shut down Futenma air base.”

On Aug. 13, 2004, a CH-53 transport helicopter of the Marine Corps crashed into a building of the university and burst into flames. No civilians were hurt, but three U.S. Marines were injured.

Maetsu also spoke about the prefecturewide referendum held this February, in which a majority of votes showed opposition to the base’s relocation to the Henoko coastal area in Nago, also in Okinawa.

“Residents’ distrust toward the government will only grow as long as it tries to continue building the new base despite strong opposition from the residents,” he said.

One student echoed the unease over U.S. troop activities.

“I feel firsthand the dangers I face just from living, every time I learn about an incident involving U.S. troops,” Ayumi Miyagi, 22, a fourth-year economics student at the university, said. “I pray that a safe and peaceful sky will return to the area around the university and the base.”

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