Ground Self-Defense Force units plan to join the U.S. Marine Corps in training involving MV-22 Osprey aircraft over Japan’s main islands, Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said Thursday.
By having the Self-Defense Forces drill outside of Okinawa, Japanese and U.S. officials hope to persuade local governments and communities to accept the presence of the controversial tilt-rotor aircraft, whose safety has been questioned due to accidents overseas.
“We have told the U.S. side (about the planned joint drill), which is part of measures to reduce the burden on Okinawa,” Onodera said at a news conference, referring to the prefecture’s hosting of the bulk of U.S. bases in Japan.
Tokyo and Washington agreed in September, when the MV-22s were first deployed to a key U.S. base in Okinawa, to pursue talks on sending the Ospreys to Japan’s main islands for flight exercises.
The contentious aircraft are based at U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, which sits in a crowded residential district in the city of Ginowan, exacerbating local opposition against the facility and the replacement airstrip, also in Okinawa, that has been planned by the central government and the U.S.
The central government and United States want Futenma to be replaced by the airstrip planned in the less populated Henoko coast. Okinawa has been fighting to have the base moved outside the prefecture.
As part of efforts to lessen Okinawa’s base burden, Japan and the United States agreed in April to return some facilities and areas used by U.S. forces on the main island of Okinawa.
Onodera said the Japan-U.S. Joint Committee approved Thursday the return of the West Futenma Housing area of Camp Zukeran in Ginowan and that the return of the area totaling about 52 hectares could take place earlier than the initially planned fiscal 2014 or later.