Osprey a new tinderbox on
Okinawa By Kosuke Takahashi
TOKYO - On May 23, 1988, in Arlington,
Texas, Bell Helicopter unveiled with much fanfare
a new combo-aircraft; a fixed-wing plane that
could climb and hover like a helicopter, but also
rotate its giant propellers forward and fly like
On that day, Peter Van Sant,
then correspondent for CBS Evening News with Dan
Rather, reported that the never-seen-before plane
was a "a revolutionary new aircraft" that was the
latest "future shock". He expected the plane would
carry commuters to Washington or Boston from
downtown Manhattan, as it could take off and land
in downtown business districts, reducing travel
It was called the V-22.
the year 2000, there could be a market of five to
passengers annually," a
company spokesperson at Bell Helicopter predicted
at the ceremony.
Twenty-four years later,
the V-22 has yet to be used as a commuter aircraft
between New York and Boston. Instead, across the
Pacific, the Bell-Boeing MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor
aircraft is becoming the next tinderbox issue on
Japan's southernmost subtropical island
Futenma Plans to deploy 12 Osprey aircraft
to US Marine Corps (USMC) Air Station Futenma in
Okinawa prefecture have emerged as a fresh
flashpoint between Okinawa residents and Tokyo and
How the national governments
handle the islanders' sensitivities over the
Osprey could prove critical for the future
stability and preservation of the Japan-US
The dispute over the MV-22
erupted on June 7 when the Okinawa chapter of the
ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) demanded
that newly appointed Defense Minister Satoshi
Morimoto resign over remarks related to the safety
of the Osprey deployment.
Defense Ministry had asked the US government to
conduct a thorough investigation prior to the
aircraft's planned deployment to Futenma,
following a MV-22 crash in April in Morocco which
killed two marines. However, Morimoto said at a
press conference on June 5, "It would be ideal to
receive all the results [from the US] on the
investigations into the accident prior to the
deployment, but there is a chance that might not
"Does the [Japanese] government
view the Okinawans as Japanese!" Chobin Zukeran, a
DPJ lawmaker representing Okinawa, shouted
tearfully at a press conference in Naha City on
Okinawa. "Don't think Okinawans are stupid!" said
Zurekan, who appeared in his shirt sleeves to
emphasize his anger at the new defense minister,
who was appointed on June 4.
base is located in the heart of densely populated
Ginowan City. In August 2004, a US Marines CH-53
military helicopter crashed into a university
building in the city, causing no serious damage or
injuries but causing a major international
"Defense Minster Morimoto's
remarks show nothing but contempt for Okinawans,"
the chapter said in an emergency statement. "There
is no more room to reach a compromise between
Okinawa and the Japanese government, and this
should be taken as all-out confrontation.
"It is unacceptable to increase the burden
borne by the people of Okinawa prefecture anymore,
and this can't help but spark the public opinion
that Okinawa should become independent," the
statement also said.
As if in damage
control, the Japanese Ministry of Defense
announced on June 8 that a US investigation into
the crash in Morocco had found no mechanical flaws
in the MV-22. However, the ministry admitted that
the investigation was ongoing and had yet to
specify the crash's cause.
year marks the 40th anniversary of Okinawa's
reversion to Japan from US control, US military
bases still occupy almost a fifth of the main
Okinawa island. While Okinawa only accounts for
0.4% of Japan's land area, 74% of all US bases are
The US plans to deploy
Ospreys to Futenma this year as part of an ongoing
replacement of the USMC's ageing CH-46 Sea Knight
However, this comes amid
a decade-long deadlock over plans to relocate
Futenma air station to Henoko, Nago, in northern
Okinawa by constructing a new sea-based
replacement facility off Camp Schwab.
Local governments, supported by the
majority of Okinawans, have demanded the immediate
closure and transfer of Futenma outside of the
prefecture, but it seems the opposite is
In April, the Japanese
government to agreed with the US to pay refurbishment costs for the
Futenma base until the sea-based replacement
facility was constructed on the north of the
island. But Okinawans are worried that maintenance
and repair work on Futenma will mean its continued
For Okinawans, the plans to deploy
the Osprey at Futenma strengthens perceptions that
the air base will become a permanent fixture.
In an apparent attempt to ease tensions,
the US and Japanese governments are reportedly
considering temporarily stationing the Osprey at
Iwakuni Air Base in Yamaguchi prefecture in July,
and demonstrating their safety by conducting test
flights there. The MV-22 would then be deployed to
Futenma by mid-August, the Asahi Shimbun reported
on June 9.
An alternative plan to
transport the Ospreys in pieces by sea to the Naha
Military Port on Okinawa as early as July, with
the aircraft to be assembled there, was aborted as
the Naha City Council unanimously adopted a
resolution against and Naha Mayor Takeshi Onaga
voiced his opposition.
"Any logic that
does not understand the Okinawan mind and our
history won't be accepted," Onaga said at a press
conference on June 6. "Although we are requesting
the easing of the burden, they are bringing about
excessive burdens on us further. There is no need
to consider the deployment."
a joint survey conducted by the Asahi Shimbun and
the Okinawa Times in April ahead of the 40th
anniversary of Okinawa's reversion to Japanese
sovereignty, 50% of residents of Okinawa
Prefecture said "discrimination by the mainland"
was the reason why the scale of US military bases
in the prefecture remains unchanged.
opinion that mainland discrimination is behind the
lack of reduction of US military bases in Okinawa
has spread since around 2010, when then Prime
Minister Yukio Hatoyama broke his promise to
relocate the US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma
outside of the prefecture," the Asahi Shimbun
The widow-maker The
MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor vertical take-off and
landing (VTOL) transport aircraft was once called
the "widow-maker" due to a series of accidents
during its development.
Development of the
MV-22 got off to rocky start with the deaths of 23
marines in two crashes during testing more than 12
years ago. A US Air Force version of the
tilt-rotor aircraft, the special mission CV-22,
crashed in Afghanistan in April 2010, killing
three service members and one civilian contractor.
It is this safety record that concerns
Okinawa prefectural government and local
residents, leading them to fiercely oppose this
The Pentagon has
dismissed such safety concerns.
is among the safest aircraft in the Marine Corps'
inventory," Captain Richard K Ulsh, USMC public
affairs officer told Asia Times Online. "Including
the mishap on April 11, 2012 in Morocco, since the
Marine Corps resumed flight operations in October
2003, the MV-22B has demonstrated a safety record
that is consistently better than USMC averages
while conducting military training, humanitarian
assistance missions, and combat operations in very
Naval Safety Center records, since the Marine
Corps resumed flight operations in October of 2003
through April 11 2012, the MV-22B has demonstrated
a safety record that is consistently better than
USMC averages," Ulsh said.
Ulsh, MV-22's mishap rate, determined by the
number of mishaps over a period of 100,000 flight
hours, is the second lowest among the five
aircraft as described below.
Marine Corps views the MV-22 as a highly capable,
reliable and safe aircraft," Ulsh said.
Latent anti-US base sentiment is likely to
rise in coming months as local elections approach.
Naha's mayoral election is scheduled for November,
and there is speculation that low approval ratings
for Yoshihiko Noda's government, currently sitting
at just around 20%, could soon spur a general
Major political parties and
prefectural chapters in Okinawa are highly likely
to use the votes to campaign for the relocation of
the Futenma facility outside of the prefecture as
well as a halt to the V-22 deployment.
was unavoidable that the deployment of Osprey
would become a source of friction and conflict,"
Japanese military analyst Toshiyuki Shikata told
Asia Times Online. "Without the accident in
Morocco, the situation would have been better.
Okinawans vividly remember the crash
of the marine helicopter into Okinawa International
University. The US and Japanese governments will
now be forced to delay the deployment later than
originally scheduled. A cooling off period is
Kosuke Takahashi is a
Tokyo-based Japanese journalist. Besides Asia
Times Online, he also writes for Jane's Defence
Weekly as Tokyo correspondent. His twitter is
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