The recent reciprocal visits of top U.S. and Japanese defense officials underscore how much the bilateral security relationship has rebounded from earlier tensions over local opposition to the proposed relocation of the Futenma Marine Air Station and the new Japanese government’s striving to pursue a more balanced policy between Washington and Beijing.
The focus of Japanese Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto’s August 3rd visit to Washington, his first foreign visit since being appointed in June, was the flight he took on the 12 MV-22 tilt-rotor Osprey aircraft that the Pentagon wants to incorporate into Marine Corps operations based in Japan. The tilt-rotor Osprey can take off and land like a helicopter but also has wings and can fly like a plane.
The dozen Ospreys were delivered to Iwakuni Air Station, the only U.S. Marine Corps station in the main Japanese islands in Yamaguchi Prefecture, in July for test flights before their deployment with the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force (III MEF) at Futenma, which is located in a densely populated district of the city of Ginowan in Okinawa Prefecture. Their full operational capacity is scheduled for October.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Two recent Osprey crashes, in Florida and Morocco, resulting in the deaths of two people and injuring another five, has deepened Japanese concerns regarding the aircraft’s safety. The plane had a trouble-prone research & development history but the Pentagon considers the Osprey sufficiently safe to warrant its replacing older, less effective Marines helicopters such as the CH-46 at Futenma. Defense Department officials briefed a visiting Japanese delegation on the incidents in June.
Nonetheless, local opposition to the deployment remains high and partly reflects aversion to the continued U.S. military presence at Okinawa, which accounts for less than one percent of Japan’s soil but hosts about one-half of all the American forces in Japan. The Japanese and U.S. governments in 1996 reached an agreement on the return of Futenma base, but the deal was never implemented. Hence, a bilateral agreement was signed in 2006 stated on building an alternative facility in the coastal city of Chinook, north of Nago on the island of Okinawa
After the Democratic Party of Japan (DJP) came to power in 2009, pledging to move Futenma base outside Okinawa, the situation took a turn for the worse. The Japanese Prime Minister at that time, Yukio Hatoyama, sought to move the base to Tokunoshima Island of Kagoshima County, located south-west of the Japanese territory, but opposition arose from the local population and Washington alike.
A solution may have been found this April, when the Pentagon announced plans to transfer 9,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam, Hawaii, and Australia, while returning much of the land that they occupy to the Japanese.
Nonetheless, the governments of Iwakuni and Okinawa have supported protestors claiming that the Ospreys are unsafe. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has stated that he will not allow any Osprey tests flights until his government determines that the planes do not threaten the residents.
U.S. officials pledged that the Ospreys will not be used in Japan (though they will remain usable everywhere else) until Japanese safety concerns are satisfied. With DM Morimoto by his side, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said that the Department was reviewing the reasons for the crashes and would share the investigation’s results with the Japanese government.