This October marks the 10th anniversary of the arrival in Okinawa of the MV-22B Osprey, a unique yet troubled tiltrotor aircraft. Based at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma on the island of Okinawa, the aircraft, which boasts vertical and short takeoff and landing capabilities, was supposed to revolutionize humanitarian assistance, disaster relief capacities, and troop transportation in the region. Normally viewed as part of the larger context of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty and the increased Chinese aggression in the East China Sea, the deployment of the Osprey also factors heavily in the broader Okinawan human rights landscape.
Two issues are driving local concerns over the Osprey, which were captured by Okinawan civil society submissions to Japan’s 2017 Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the United Nations Human Rights Council. These are the impact that the aircraft has had on the quality of life of the local population and widespread safety concerns about its use. Citing Articles 6, 9, and 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which pertain to life, liberty, and interference with privacy and the family, a coalition of groups including the Okinawa Environment Network, All Okinawa Council for Human Rights, and the Plaintiff Group for Third Lawsuit against Aircraft Noise of Kadena Airbase, submitted a joint report for consideration to the stakeholder’s report for Japan’s Third Cycle UPR.
In the report, the groups expressed concern that the military bases in Okinawa and certain aircraft based there, particularly the MV-22B Osprey, were causing “grave health, environmental, and social problems” for the local population. These included noise pollution, which as far back as 1980 has been categorized by the World Health Organization as an environmental health risk. Twenty-four Ospreys are stationed at Air Station Futenma, and the U.S. military has been conducting routine flight operations over affected population centers.
The civil society report noted that over a third of the area around Futenma is affected by noise levels of 75-80 decibels (dB) Weighted Equivalent Continuous Perceived Noise Level, which exceeds levels set in Japan’s environmental standards regulations. Low-frequency noise from the Osprey often exceeds 90dB. The Department of Defense Noise Working Group has debated the impact of aircraft noise on sleep but has drawn few conclusions.
While U.S. government reports draw few conclusions regarding Okinawa, aircraft operations, like those from the Osprey, have immediate psychological impacts including sleep deprivation, which can lead to broader health effects such as heart disease or stroke. According to a 2015 report by four U.N. special rapporteurs, Okinawa is subject to 20,000 military takeoffs and landings annually, equal to 50 drills per day. Aircraft noise sometimes exceeds 120 dB.
Civil damages related to aircraft noise from Marine Corps Air Station Futenma have already begun. In March, a court awarded $11.6 million to more than 3,100 plaintiffs in compensation for U.S. air operations over Okinawa. A three-judge panel from the Naha District Court found the 3,139 plaintiffs suffered “impermissible levels of noise.” One group of plaintiffs will receive around $5,800 per resident, while the lower group will receive approximately $2,900. The plaintiffs, unsatisfied with the verdict, are appealing.
The controversial Osprey is also the subject of other legal challenges, including one that calls for the cessation of flights from Futenma. There have been several lawsuits in the past, the largest coming in 2017, when a three-judge panel awarded 22,054 residents living around Kadena the sum of $265 million, or roughly $12,000 per plaintiff. There are at least three other cases related to aircraft noise still outstanding, including a $795 million lawsuit with 35,000 plaintiffs filed this past January.
The second issue pertains to the aircraft’s controversial safety record. For example, the commanding officer of one of Okinawa’s Osprey squadrons was fired after a crash killed three U.S. Marines after takeoff from the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard positioned off the coast of Australia. But this 2018 issue was not the only cause for local concern. Japanese authorities recommended the prosecution of an American pilot who allegedly ditched his Osprey off the eastern coast of Nago in December 2016. Stationed at Futenma, the pilot abandoned the aircraft in an aerial refueling exercise but failed to take proper precautions by flying too fast.
Concerns about the Osprey exist well beyond Okinawa, as more than 13 crashes of various versions of the aircraft have caused more than 50 casualties. In March, an Osprey taking part in the Cold Response military exercise in Norway crashed, killing four Marines. And in June, an Osprey from the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing crashed in California, killing another five Marines. Japan’s Ground Self-Defense Force grounded its own Osprey fleet after the U.S. Air Force halted flights of the aircraft over safety concerns in late August, after a clutch malfunction inside one of the plane’s gearboxes. Okinawans have repeatedly raised concerns about the U.S. military’s continued use of the controversial aircraft, particularly at Futenma, where they are often flown close to densely populated neighborhoods.
The Japanese government has demonstrated a heavy hand in response to public protests. The Coast Guard has placed unnecessary restrictions on public protest in Okinawa, and David Kaye, then the U.N. special rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, expressed concern in 2017 about reports of excessive use of force during arrests, even of journalists filming the protests. For example, in October 2016, the head of the Okinawa Peace Action Center, Yamashiro Hiroji, who was arrested for cutting barbed wire, obstructing relocation work, and shaking the shoulders of a Defense Ministry official, was arrested and detained for five months without trial. Complicating matters were Yamashiro’s lymphoma diagnosis and the harsh conditions during his long detention, which he detailed to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva in 2017.
Human rights concerns often take a backseat to security concerns on the printed page as well as in real life. As the geopolitical stakes in East Asia intensify, Okinawa has become an even more crucial piece of geography, and integral to Japan’s defense. A recent poll by Kyodo News found that sentiments toward the U.S. military haven’t changed much, and 84 percent believe Okinawa shoulders a disproportionate share of the burden. Fifty-one percent of those surveyed said they do not trust the U.S. military – and anti-base protests show no signs of slowing down.
All of this is a reminder that essential freedoms such as political rights, the right to safety, and the right to health should not be compromised in the pursuit of security.