The crash of a U.S. Air Force helicopter inside an Okinawa military installation Monday amid local opposition to the deployment of tilt-rotor MV-22 Osprey aircraft at a U.S. Marine Corps base on the main island has put Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government on the spot.
Despite the central government’s swift request that helicopters of the type involved in the accident, in which one of the four-member crew was believed killed, be grounded until the cause of the crash is identified, local sentiment against the U.S. military presence and operations in the prefecture appears to be hardening.
Officials in Tokyo are concerned that the accident will delay the deployment of additional MV-22 combat troop carriers at Air Station Futenma in Ginowan and affect the planned construction of a new marine airfield in a coastal area on the island.
“It is important that the safety of local people comes first,” Abe said at a news conference in the city of Hiroshima on Tuesday, straining to show Tokyo’s readiness to stand by the people of Okinawa, home to the bulk of U.S. military installations in Japan. “We would like to ask the U.S. side to give its utmost consideration to safety.”
The series of requests made to the U.S. side by Japanese officials shortly after the accident surprised even Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima, who often questions Tokyo’s sensitivity to local sentiments.
“I think they handled it speedily this time,” the governor told reporters Tuesday after meeting with several Cabinet ministers.
The speed at which the officials have responded highlights the sense of crisis they have felt over the crash and its potential impact on the additional deployment of the Osprey aircraft that had begun just days earlier.
The plan was to deploy an additional 12 MV-22s to Futenma by the end of this month in addition to the 12 deployed there last year, but the accident has prompted the marines to put off transporting them from a base in Yamaguchi Prefecture.
The crash of an HH-60 rescue helicopter “couldn’t come at a worse time,” a senior official of the Foreign Ministry said. A senior Defense Ministry official said the accident has “further hardened Okinawa’s public opinion about the Ospreys and U.S. forces.”
Locals have been incensed by Osprey aircraft flying over their densely populated islands, partly because of the aircraft’s mixed safety record overseas. The aircraft have also become a symbol of the U.S. military’s dominant presence in the island prefecture that continues more than four decades after the end of U.S. postwar occupation.
The crash also comes as Tokyo is seeking Nakaima’s swift approval to fill in offshore areas in Nago, also on Okinawa Island, to accommodate the planned new airstrip’s runways.
The airstrip is intended to replace the Futenma base, but project has been stalled for years because of prolonged local opposition.
The central government has been working to create “as quiet an environment as possible” for the governor to make a decision on the fill work, possibly by year’s end, a government source said, apparently so that Okinawa’s top elected official would not have to take into account the outcome of a mayoral election in Nago early next year.
Meanwhile, a senior Defense Ministry official heaved a sigh of relief after learning that the helicopter, which crashed into a wooded exercise area within the marines’ Camp Hansen during a training mission, was not an Osprey.
“I think the impact will be small given that the crashed aircraft was not an Osprey and that the crash did not damage civilian facilities,” the official said.
Japan and the United States have been seeking to increase the number of training flights outside of Okinawa for the Ospreys as a way of reducing the U.S. military’s footprint in the prefecture, with plans to unveil the change at the so-called two-plus-two meeting of foreign and defense ministers likely to be held in October.
But it remains unclear whether the number of such flights can be increased given that the helicopter accident has cast light on the risks inherent in the operations of U.S. military aircraft, while municipalities outside of Okinawa remain wary of the twin-engine aircraft flying over their jurisdictions.
The crash has “proven that Okinawa’s skies are dangerous,” local anti-base activist Hiroshi Ashitomi said. “Forcing U.S. military bases on us in this excessive manner is nothing but forcing dangers on us.”
Noting that the helicopter crash came on the heels of the start of the additional Osprey deployment at the Futenma base, Nakaima told reporters in Tokyo that the “anxiety of the people of the prefecture has unavoidably heightened.”