Helicopter Accident in Nansei Island Chain Rattles Govt, SDF Officials

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada speaks at a press conference at the Diet on Friday.

Amid efforts to drastically boost defense capabilities in the Nansei island chain, the disappearance Thursday of a Ground Self-Defense Force helicopter has rattled officials of the Defense Ministry and the Self-Defense Forces.

The aircraft, which was carrying the commander of the 8th Division, disappeared from radar during a scheduled flight around the Okinawa Prefecture island of Miyako, which would be on the front line in the event of a Taiwan contingency.

“We have yet to find Lt. Gen. [Yuichi] Sakamoto and others who were aboard [the helicopter]. We will do our utmost to find the 10 personnel,” Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada said at a press conference held after a Cabinet meeting on Friday. Hamada’s voice was trembling as he spoke and he appeared to have tears in his eyes.

The 8th Division is in charge of defense and security in southern Kyushu, covering Kumamoto, Miyazaki and Kagoshima prefectures. Based at GSDF Camp Kita-Kumamoto, the 5,000-member unit is led by Sakamoto.

The disappearance of a division commander has rocked the GSDF.

The helicopter took off from the Miyakojima Sub Base at around 3:46 p.m. on Thursday. It was carrying enough fuel to stay in the air until 7:46 p.m.

GSDF Chief of Staff Gen. Yasunori Morishita wore a grave expression during an emergency press conference at the ministry in Ichigaya, Tokyo, on Thursday night. “Based on the fuel load and the discovery of what appear to be aircraft parts [in the surrounding area], we have concluded that the helicopter was involved in an accident,” Morishita said.

Sakamoto had just taken up the post of division commander at the end of last month.

According to the GSDF, the personnel on the helicopter were conducting “aerial reconnaissance,” checking the topography of the islands from the sky for operational purposes.

Such activities are conducted routinely. “It is essential for division heads and others to have an understanding of the topography of the areas they are responsible for so they can issue appropriate instructions to the troops in the field,” a senior GSDF official said.

The 8th Division was reorganized into a “mobile division” with enhanced transport capabilities in 2018. The division would be part of a rapid deployment to the Nansei island chain in the event of an emergency situation.

The Nansei chain spans a distance of 1,200 kilometers, comprising Okinawa Prefecture and southern Kagoshima Prefecture. The region has been a defense vacuum since the end of World War II. For most of that period, the only GSDF unit in the area was on the main island of Okinawa.

Since 2016, GSDF posts have been established on Japan’s westernmost island of Yonaguni, Miyako Island in Okinawa Prefecture, and Amami Oshima Island in Kagoshima Prefecture. In March this year, the ministry also set up a post on Ishigaki Island in Okinawa Prefecture, as part of efforts to strengthen defense capabilities in the region.

Amid such moves, Beijing has been intensifying provocations. China, which has not ruled out armed unification of Taiwan, fired six ballistic missiles into the vicinity of Yonaguni Island on Aug. 4 last year.

“In light of the current situation in which China is expanding its military power, the investigation into the cause of the [helicopter] accident must be conducted swiftly,” a senior Defense Ministry official said. “The most important thing is to do everything possible to find the personnel.”