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Okinawa coordinator’s remarks cause repercussions

In regard to the accident involving an Osprey in which the aircraft was badly damaged after making an emergency landing in waters off Nago City, Okinawa, remarks made by the Okinawa Area Coordinator (OAC), Lt. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson, the top U.S. military officer in Okinawa, are causing repercussions. “The pilot deserves praise for avoiding residential areas, so residents should be grateful.” What led him to say that? How were his remarks received in Okinawa?


State Minister of Defense Kenji Wakamiya visited the Okinawa prefectural government office on Dec. 15 to explain and apologize for the accident. “I was told that we were not giving thought to the pilot and should be grateful to him,” Okinawa Prefectural Vice Governor Mitsuo Ageda told Wakamiya, referring to the OAC’s remarks. “The U.S. military caused the accident, but the commander is taking a defiant attitude,” said Ageda angrily.


According to the vice governor, the OAC made the remarks during a closed meeting held at the U.S. military’s Camp Foster in the village of Kitanakagusuku. After the meeting, Ageda recounted the OAC’s remarks to the press.


According to a prefectural government official who was briefed on the remarks, the OAC said that in order to avoid urban districts, the pilot headed east toward the shoreline in Nago City, instead of flying back to the Futenma airfield in Ginowan City. The official went on to say that the OAC repeated the remark “the pilot is a hero,” striking the table. The official continued: “The OAC was very angry, failing to understand why the prefectural government filed a protest.” Furthermore, the official quoted the vice governor as saying, “I felt as if Nicholson was protesting back against me.” Later at a press conference held at the camp, the OAC repeatedly said, “I am proud of the pilot who made the best decision in the worst situation.”


Governor Takeshi Onaga told the press on Dec. 14, “As we expected, there is a wide gap in thinking between the U.S. military and the Okinawa people,” criticizing the remarks.


A self-employed woman (37) in Nago City said, “In the first place, the OAC should apologize for causing the accident and for polluting the ocean.” A self-employed man (71) in Urasoe City said, “If the troubled airplane had attempted to return to base, my house might have been endangered, so I understand why the commander praised the pilot.” But the man added, “Residents suffer from noise from U.S. military aircraft on a daily basis, but I don’t think the U.S. military understands the seriousness of the problem.”


OAC Lawrence Nicholson’s remarks


1) 1:30 p.m. on Dec. 14 (according to Vice Governor Mitsuo Ageda)

  • The pilot did not cause any damage to houses or residents. Residents should be grateful to him and the pilot deserves commendation.
  • Shouldn’t residents give more thought to the pilot?
  • Are you making this accident a political issue?


2) 3:00 p.m. on Dec. 14 (excerpts from a press conference)

  • After the propeller was damaged, the airplane lost stability, so the pilot was forced to return to base, but instead of flying over residential areas, he decided to land the airplane on the shoreline near Camp Schwab. The pilot did not try to head toward Kadena Base–that is deserving of praise. He saved the lives of many Okinawans and the lives of the crew. I am proud of the pilot who made the best decision in the worst situation.
  • The accident is very regrettable. I apologize for the accident. But I want people to understand that it was not due to a mechanical malfunction of the airplane. The cause of the accident was the severing of the hose (of the air refueling tanker). I want to conclude by emphasizing the decision made by the crew. It could have been worse. I want people to understand the crew made a good decision.


Journalist Yara Tomohiro comments


I have seen past top U.S. military officers in Okinawa, but I don’t recall any officer who expressed his emotions in this manner to a prefectural government representative as Nicholson did. I understand his frustration. However, he asserted a self-serving argument and turned defiant when things did not go as he wished. This is similar to the case when riot police officers called protesters “doijn” [a pejorative for “indigenous people”]. This case is evidence that frustration has built up within the U.S. military over the fact that their presence in Okinawa has become a political issue.


Toshiyuki Shikata, a former SDF officer and a professor emeritus at Teikyo University, comments


Military members are trained to put residents’ safety ahead of theirs. It is natural for a commander to defend his subordinates who performed as trained. In addition, the OAC strongly expressed the view that the U.S. military’s presence is for protecting Okinawa and Japan. I had the impression that the OAC saw Okinawa’s protest as an emotional response and clearly explained the U.S. military’s stance and view. Although his attitude was inappropriate for the top U.S. military officer in Okinawa, he expressed his true feelings.

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