NAHA, Japan – Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera sought the understanding of the Okinawa government Monday over continued flights of the U.S. military Osprey aircraft amid strong local concerns over its safety following a fatal crash off the coast of Australia on Aug. 5.
The tilt-rotor transport aircraft is “very important for our country’s security,” Onodera told Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga on his first visit to the southern island prefecture, which hosts the bulk of U.S. military facilities in Japan, after assuming the defense chief post in a Cabinet reshuffle on Aug. 3.
Onaga criticized the central government for endorsing the U.S. military’s decision that Ospreys are safe enough to operate, just six days after the accident.
After the accident, the Japanese Defense Ministry quickly urged the U.S. military to keep Ospreys grounded in Japan, but the demand fell on deaf ears.
The U.S. Marine Corps said Wednesday it judged Ospreys to be safe to fly following an investigation and the Japanese ministry rubber-stamped the U.S. military’s decision Friday.
The response was “extremely disappointing from the viewpoint of protecting the lives of the people in the prefecture and in the country,” Onaga told Onodera during their meeting in the prefectural capital of Naha. Onodera promised Onaga that he will continue to “ask the U.S. side over and over again to safely fly the aircraft.”
The Ospreys, which take off and land like helicopters but cruise like planes, were already unpopular in Okinawa due to their noise and record of accidents overseas. The U.S. military currently has more than 20 MV-22s deployed at U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa.
Last December one of the aircraft crash-landed in waters off the main island of Okinawa — the first major accident involving the aircraft in Japan. The accident in Australia also involved an MV-22 based at the Futenma base.
Onodera told reporters after his meeting with Onaga that the U.S. forces see the role of the Osprey aircraft as “very important for Japan’s security and to deal with the tense situation in East Asia.”
The central and local governments have also been bitterly divided over the plan to relocate the Futenma base in Ginowan to the less populated Henoko coastal area of Nago, also in Okinawa. Onaga and many Okinawans want the Futenma base to be removed from the prefecture altogether.
Onodera told Onaga he wants to “steadily move ahead” with the current plan to address the danger posed by keeping the Futenma base in a crowded residential area in Ginowan.