Six of the 12 Osprey tilt-rotor transport aircraft stationed at U.S. Marine Corps’ Air Station Iwakuni, Yamaguchi Prefecture, were deployed at Air Station Futenma in Okinawa Prefecture on Monday, and three more Osprey aircraft flew from Iwakuni to Futenma on Tuesday amid Okinawans’ concerns about the aircraft’s safety and protests against its deployment in their prefecture. Eventually all 12 Osprey aircraft are expected to be stationed at Futenma.
The Japanese and U.S. governments should not make light of the fact that resentment among Okinawans is deepening and protest activities are escalating.
From Saturday to Sunday, protesters blocked all the gates to Futenma. The Okinawa prefectural assembly adopted a resolution to protest the Osprey’s deployment at Futenma. Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima said that the fact that the deployment is taking place at a time when Okinawans’ worries have not dissipated is “beyond understanding.”
The Japanese government has accepted the United States’ explanation that human errors, not structural or mechanical problems, caused an Osprey accident in Morocco in April, in which two U.S. Marines died and two others were seriously injured, and the crash of a U.S. Air Force Osprey in June in Florida.
But the point is that Okinawans will not accept the deployment of the Osprey at Futenma. The government should pay close attention to Gov. Nakaima’s view that if the Osprey is involved in an accident in Okinawa, the possibility cannot be ruled out that Okinawans will start calling for immediate closure of all U.S. military bases in their prefecture. This could not only jeopardize the entire Japan-U.S. security relationship but also cause a great schism between Okinawa and the Japanese government.
Tokyo and Washington say that the deployment of the Osprey, whose speed and radius of operation is about two times and four times, respectively, that of the CH-46 helicopters now deployed at Futenma, will improve Japan and the U.S.’ military deterrence.
It is unlikely, however that this explanation will ease Okinawans’ worries about the safety of the Osprey given the fact that during the development stage of the Osprey from 1991 to 2000, the aircraft crashed four times, killing 30 people, and that the U.S. Marines Corps has reported that Ospreys were involved in 40 accidents from 2001 to July 2012. Their concerns are exacerbated by the location of Futenma air station in the midst of congested Ginowan City.
The more Tokyo and Washington push their case for deploying Ospreys at Futenma, the stronger the resistance will become in Okinawa. Okinawans may start questioning whether the presence of the U.S. Marine Corps in Okinawa is really for the sake of military deterrence as the government officially explains.
Tokyo and Washington should reevaluate their decision to base Osprey aircraft at Futenma and forthrightly respond to the demands of Okinawans to move the air station’s functions to outside their prefecture.