TOKYO, Aug. 7 - Japanese transport ministry said Wednesday that the United States has issued a ban on civilian aircraft flying in the vicinity of a helicopter crash site in Okinawa, Japan's southernmost prefecture.
The U.S. military has imposed the ban unilaterally since 10:00 am Tuesday, despite not having jurisdiction over airspace in Okinawa and not asking prior permission from their Japanese counterparts.
The ban has prevented civilian aircraft from flying within an 11 km radius of the crash site and up to 3 kilometers above the site, said the ministry, which rejected it as invalid, according to senior ministry officials.
The controversial ban, which went above the heads of Japanese defense ministry officials and bemused senior central government ministers, follows a U.S. Air Force HH-60 rescue helicopter crashing on the compound of the U.S. Marines' Camp Hansen on Monday.
The accident, which killed one crew member, has distressed the local community in Okinawa, despite it happening on a U.S. base and not injuring any civilians in the area.
U.S. officials said the helicopter, based in the Kadena airbase in Okinawa, crashed in a training area on the base while conducting a regular training mission.
Okinawa hosts the majority of U.S. military forces in Japan and opposition to the U.S. military presence there has been intensifying of late, following a series of accidents, a number of globally-reported odious crimes and growing concern about military- related noise and pollution.
The latest crash has caused anti-U.S. military sentiment in Okinawa to increase among both civilians and local authorities.
Japan has insisted the U.S. swiftly investigate the cause of the crash and ground their fleet of HH-60 rescue helicopters until the reason has been found.
Japanese Deputy Foreign Minister Shinsuke Sugiyama held meetings with U.S. Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel in Washington on Tuesday regarding this matter, NHK reported.
Sugiyama said that in the meetings he lodged a strong protest over the tragic accident and asked the U.S. to prevent any recurrence by finding the cause of the crash, the national broadcaster said.
The U.S. side, for their part, said they will share all relevant information with their Japanese counterparts.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said that the U.S. must prioritize the safety of the local people in Okinawa.
"It is important that the safety of local people comes first," the premiere said at a news conference.
"We would like to ask the U.S. side to give its utmost consideration to safety," Abe added.
The accident came at a tense time for both the U.S. and Japan who are looking to deploy more MV-22 Osprey combat troop carriers at the Futenma Air Station in the densely populated city of Ginowan in Okinawa.
The crash of an HH-60 rescue helicopter "couldn't come at a worse time," a senior official of the Japanese Foreign Ministry was quoted as saying.
"The accident has further hardened Okinawa's public opinion about the Ospreys and U.S. forces," the official said, adding that the central government's plans to move the controversial air station to a less populated coastal region may now become even more problematic in terms of gaining local support.
The Ospreys themselves have a dubious safety history and local residents and officials are staunchly opposed to the helicopters being deployed on the island.
The U.S. Marines had planned for 12 MV-22 to be operational at Futenma by the end of this month in addition to the 12 deployed there last year, despite massive local protests.
The accident may well cause the Marines to delay transporting the Ospreys from a base in Yamaguchi Prefecture to Okinawa, officials said.
U.S. forces controlled Okinawan airspace for a long time in the past and even after the islands were reverted to Japan in 1972, the U.S. only transferred operational airspace jurisdiction back to Japanese authorities three years ago.