Monday’s crash of a HH-60 rescue helicopter from the U.S. Air Force’s Kadena Air Base in Okinawa has reminded Okinawan people, once again, the risks they face due to the presence of U.S. armed forces there. The crash occurred at a time when additional MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft are being transferred to the U.S. Marine Corps Futenma Air Station on the same island. Many Okinawans worry about the safety of the Osprey. The latest accident will only deepen their fear and anger over accidents involving the U.S. military, and their distrust of the U.S. and Japanese governments.
The HH-60 helicopter crashed in a heavily wooded area inside Camp Hansen, just 2 km from a residential area and also near the Okinawa Expressway, an elementary school, a kindergarten and a day-care facility for children.
U.S. and Japanese officials should realize that it was only by sheer luck that local residents were not injured by the crash. This was the 45th crash in Okinawa involving U.S. military aircraft since the island’s reversion to Japan 41 years ago in 1972.
In May, an F-15 fighter from Kadena Air Base crashed in the Pacific Ocean about 60 km from Kunigami Village in the northern part of Okinawa Island. These back-to-back crashes suggest that many military aircraft operate close to the edge of their safety margin during flights over Okinawa.
Although the United States has postponed the transfer of 10 out of an additional 12 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft to the Futenma base (two have already been moved), it will not halt the transfer. The Futenma base already has 12 Ospreys. Monday’s crash of the HH-60 helicopter will intensify Okinawans’ fear of the deployment, as the Futenma base is located in the midst of urban Ginowan City. The crash will no doubt intensify the call for moving the functions of the Futenma base out of Okinawa Prefecture altogether.
Both the Japanese and U.S. governments should realize that as long as they stick to their plan of building a replacement facility for the Futenma base in Henoko, northern Okinawa Island, U.S. military bases in Okinawa will continue to stir resentment in the prefecture’s residents. If such resentment continues to grow and fester, it could become a destabilizing factor in the relationship between Japan and the U.S,. and between Tokyo and Okinawa. Japan and the U.S. should rethink the Henoko plan.
When the HH-60 helicopter crashed on Monday, the Okinawan police and firefighters were not allowed to go to the scene of the accident, and Japan was not allowed to join in the investigation of the crash due to the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). As a result, Japan will have to accept the U.S. military’s conclusions about the cause of the crash and will not have a say in what, if any, safety measures should be implemented to prevent future accidents.
The SOFA also makes it difficult for Japanese authorities to investigate off-base crimes committed by U.S. service members. Tokyo should seriously consider seeking revisions of the SOFA as one way of helping to alleviate the burden on Okinawan residents.