CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Okinawans petitioned the Japanese government Monday to kick Osprey aircraft off the island and hurry the closure of a controversial U.S. air base here.
Mayors and representatives of all 41 Okinawa municipalities delivered the message to newly elected Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Japan’s defense and foreign affairs ministers, who are faced with the challenge of quelling such unrest and shepherding through an unpopular plan to realign U.S. forces on the island.
The move came a day after about 4,000 people marched through Tokyo’s Ginza district carrying anti-Osprey banners, according to media reports. Protesters claim the helicopter/plane hybrid isn’t safe.
The widespread calls to halt all Osprey operations show that public anger, which spilled over into protests during the fall deployment of Marine Corps Ospreys to Futenma air station, has not abated. Further outrage was sparked two weeks ago when the Air Force mentioned interest in deploying more Ospreys to Japan.
The Okinawans urged the Tokyo government to ground the new squadron of MV-22 Ospreys and immediately close Futenma, which has long been a lightning rod for local opposition, according to a spokesman for the Okinawa Prefectural Citizens’ Rally Against the Osprey Deployment.
The MV-22s arrived on Okinawa in October after months of controversy over the aircraft’s checkered safety record and are now flown to U.S. facilities across Japan while also taking part in joint training in Guam and the Philippines.
The Okinawa citizens group also requested Japan block any deployment of Air Force CV-22s to the island, the spokesman said.
Air Force Secretary Michael Donley had told the media earlier this month that the service is interested in eventually stationing the aircraft in Japan but gave no specific plans. The Pentagon later said no decision has been reached and any potential deployment would be years away.
The Japan defense ministry said Monday it had no comment on the closed-door meetings with Okinawa representatives.
Many Okinawans still believe the tilt-rotor aircraft are dangerous despite independent investigations by both the U.S. and Japan of recent crashes, which killed two Marines in Africa and completely destroyed at least one Osprey in Florida.
The anger over the Ospreys is in many ways an extension of the frustrations Okinawans have felt for decades over the large presence of U.S. forces and heavy military air traffic on the island, especially around Futenma. The U.S. and Japan agreed to close the air station in 2006 due to the concerns, but the plan has floundered for years, mostly due to the difficult political relationship between Okinawa and Tokyo.
Abe and his new government have confirmed their support of the Futenma closure and a final environmental study was completed in December — a final step before requesting construction permits from the Okinawa government, which are needed to clear the way for the closure and building of a new U.S. base farther north on the island.
For years, Tokyo has avoided requesting the permits because Okinawans deeply oppose building the replacement facility and continuing to host Marine Corps air operations.
So far, Abe’s government has not indicated when it may make the request.