Raw Japan

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Traffic hampers Japan’s ‘Top Guns’

March 27, 2009

Captain Takuha Shimoishi is a member of a crack squadron of fighter pilots at the front line of some of Japan’s most sensitive territorial disputes, ready to scramble to check out incursions into the country’s airspace at any moment.

 But however fast the slender 35-year-old leaps into his F-15 fighter, he is sometimes forced to wait in line behind planeloads of holidaymakers before taking off, he told me during a tour of the Naha military base on the southern island of Okinawa this week.

That’s the downside of sharing a runway with Japan’s fifth busiest commercial airport, a hub for tourists from across the region, attracted in droves by the balmy climate and clear, blue seas around Okinawa and its neighbouring islands.naha11

Training flights for the F-15 pilots and their navy colleagues in P3-C surveillance aircraft, who track any incursions by foreign submarines, must be slotted into windows outside peak holiday flight times.

Such dual use of runways is symbolic of the curbs on Japan’s military under its pacifist constitution. It is also seen as a benefit for local people, helping assuage irritation over the noise and other inconveniences of living close to a military air base.

That’s a particularly important consideration in Okinawa, which suffered the bloodiest Pacific battle of World War Two and chafed under U.S. military occupation until its reversion to Japan in 1972. Runway sharing does exist at a small number of other bases, though none as busy as Naha.

Japanese military officers told visiting reporters they had made concerted, and to some extent successful, efforts to win local acceptance of their presence by recruiting islanders into the army.

With Japan’s security concerns having shifted from Cold War-era fears of invasion by the Soviet Union from the north to increasing wariness about China’s growing military might, Naha, which is closer to Taiwan and Shanghai than to Tokyo, has become increasingly important.

Among the duties shared by Shimoishi and the other members of his squad are monitoring airspace around disputed islets known as the Senkaku isles in Japan, the Diaoyutai in China, and the Tiaoyutai in Taiwan, as well as gas fields in the sea between China and Japan, another source of periodic spats.

In 2006, Naha-based planes scrambled 34 times in response to aircraft suspected of intent to encroach on Japanese air space, which in most cases disappear before they can be identified.

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