Ospreys add to Okinawa grievances

Deployment seen catering only to defense industry interests

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

For nearly 30 years, Ginowan resident Eisho Nakandakari has had periodic trouble sleeping at night. It’s not insomnia that keeps him up, but the roar of jets from U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, just a few hundred meters from his home.

“Lots of times, U.S. aircraft take off and land in the middle of the night during training sessions. In principle, the U.S. says that it will not fly between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m., but there’s a clause in the agreement that allows them to do so if they feel it’s necessary,” he says.

Nakandakari adds that Ginowan residents have never received prior notification of the flights from either the marines or Japanese authorities. Now, with the MV-22 Osprey slated to be deployed to Futenma sometime this year, people living around the base are concerned not only about the noise from jets and helicopters taking off and landing, but also what routes over their homes the Osprey, with its spotty safety record, will take.

The Osprey combines the functions of a helicopter and an airplane, and hovers in midair briefly while changing from one mode to the other.

The controversial deployment is strongly opposed in Okinawa, where 39 of its 41 cities, towns and villages, as well as the prefectural assembly, have passed resolutions or issued statements in the past year in opposition of stationing Ospreys at Futenma, and not just for safety reasons.

A resolution opposing the deployment that was passed unanimously by the prefectural assembly last July states: “The U.S. has only emphasized the advantages of its deployment, such as its reduced noise and heightened safety in comparison to the CH-46 (helicopter). However, the maximum level of noise at the time of (the Osprey’s) takeoff and landing will exceed that of the CH-46. It’s clear that the impact of noise will increase from the current level in the areas surrounding Futenma air station.”

Sunday’s Okinawa Prefectural Assembly election, in which Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima and two major parties that support him suffered a major setback, is likely to lead to yet another resolution, making the Osprey’s deployment ever more difficult, politically, for the central government.

After the Naha Municipal Assembly passed a resolution last month opposing delivery of the Ospreys by ship to Naha Military Port, the central government, fearing angering Okinawans further, asked the U.S. to offload the aircraft somewhere else, assemble them, then fly them to Futenma.

The U.S. Marine base in Iwakuni, Yamaguchi Prefecture, appears to be the likely port of entry. But opposition there, too, is growing.

New Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto said Tuesday he will travel to Iwakuni to explain the situation. But it appears plans to deliver the Ospreys there are now on hold, after Iwakuni Mayor Yoshihiko Fukuda expressed safety concerns to the Defense Ministry. Opponents to the Osprey in Iwakuni also fear that, due to strong Okinawan opposition, the aircraft would remain in Iwakuni indefinitely.

Safety fears over the Osprey are strong in Okinawa. But its defenders point out the bad safety reputation is a legacy of crashes in the 1990s and in 2000, when 30 marines died in three separate crashes. The Osprey has more than 10,000 flight hours, often in wartime conditions, and actually has a better safety record than the CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter, especially over the past decade.

Until a marine Osprey crashed in Morocco in April, the only fatal crash involving the aircraft over the past decade was when an air force CV-22 crashed and killed four in Afghanistan in 2010. On the other hand, six CH-46 helicopters have crashed since 2001, with 20 fatalities.

Many Okinawans opposed to the Osprey believe the real reason the U.S. and Japanese governments want it introduced has less to do with sound military reasons, or even safety reasons, and more to do with politics.

Toshio Takahashi, a Ginowan resident leading a class-action lawsuit against the central government over the noise from Futenma-based aircraft, says it’s the U.S. defense industry and specialists in U.S.-Japan defense relations who are the real proponents of the Osprey.

“What I call the ‘security treaty mafia’ of Japanese and American academic experts, bureaucrats and politicians, and their friends in the U.S. and Japanese defense industries, have woven themselves into the decision-making process on the Ospreys. And it’s possible that, even more than the U.S. government, the U.S. defense industry that built the Osprey is desperate for them to be deployed to Okinawa, as they hope doing so will help boost sales to foreign governments,” Takahashi said.

Okinawan opposition went directly to the U.S. when Nakaima visited Washington last year, and Ginowan residents and Okinawan politicians opposed to not only the Ospreys but also the relocation of Futenma’s flight operations to Henoko, in northern Okinawa Island, traveled there in January, where they met with dozens of members of Congress and their aides, as well as State Department and Defense Department officials, Washington-based think tank experts and American peace activists.

Direct exchanges between Okinawa’s antibase movement and American politicians and others in Washington, Guam and elsewhere with an interest in the issue are now quite extensive. As a result, the antibase movement in Okinawa is often more informed about what is going on in Washington regarding the U.S. military presence in Okinawa than Tokyo-based politicians and pundits, while Nakandakari says that when it comes to providing accurate information, he trusts the Americans more than the central government.

“We know the Japanese government is hiding information about the deployment of the Ospreys from us. So, in terms of a flow of truthful information, I trust the American government more than Tokyo,” he said.