Osprey crash reignites anti-base furor on Okinawa
By MATTHEW M. BURKE AND CHIYOMI SUMIDA | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 14, 2016
CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — A storm is brewing on Okinawa after a controversial American aircraft crashed into the sea Tuesday night.
The Marine Corps sees the pilot as a hero because he ditched in shallow water rather than risk flying over Okinawan homes after a nighttime refueling with a C-130 severed a heavy hose and damaged the MV-22 Osprey’s propeller. But Okinawa’s anti-base activists, including Gov. Takeshi Onaga, see the incident as yet another reason to reduce the U.S. military presence on the tiny southern Japanese island.
The difference of opinion has spilled into public view, with Vice Gov. Mitsuo Ageda accusing Lt. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson, III Marine Expeditionary Force commander, of having a “colonialist mentality,” according to Japan’s Mainichi newspaper.
Local media reports have also accused Nicholson of lying about the apparent cause of the crash, which is still under investigation, and social media has seized upon Ageda’s comments claiming Nicholson said Japan should be “thankful” the Osprey did no damage to nearby homes or residents.
Nicholson apologized to the Okinawan people for the incident at a Wednesday news conference.
“Okinawans believe the Osprey crashed because it became uncontrollable. When it becomes uncontrollable, it could crash anywhere,” said Masaaki Gabe, a professor of international relations at the University of the Ryukyus.
“Lt. Gen. Nicholson’s comments yesterday about operations that inevitably involve risk and danger is interpreted by Okinawans that Okinawa must bear that danger … There is a possibility that the perception gap revealed through the accident could lead to further rift between Okinawa public and the [U.S.] military.”
Gabe believes Tokyo will try to stand between the U.S. military and Okinawan people so the incident does not affect Tokyo’s alliance with Washington.
MV-22 Ospreys came to Okinawa in 2012 to replace the Marines’ aging fleet of Sea Knight helicopters. Protesters against the large U.S. presence on Okinawa seized upon several high-profile crashes in the airplane-helicopter hybrid’s development and made it a symbol of their resistance.
Since 2012, there have been no major mishaps involving the Osprey in or around Okinawa, though there have been a few in other parts of the world. The aircraft has also performed admirably in humanitarian operations across the Pacific and in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.
That doesn’t matter much to a small but fervent group of protesters and their thousands of supporters who have an advocate in the governor. Despite assurances from the Marines that it was not mechanical failure that down brought the Osprey and that the pilot made the correct call to set it down without endangering the lives of Okinawa people, the aircraft is substandard in their eyes.
They have also cited a separate incident Tuesday in which an Osprey suffered a landing gear malfunction. Nicholson said that aircraft landed safely in a designated landing zone.
“The accident proved that the Ospreys are defective aircraft,” Nago Mayor Susumu Inamine said. “It is blindingly obvious that residents will be constantly exposed to danger [if the Osprey are relocated from Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to Camp Schwab], which makes it impossible for them to lead a normal daily life.”
Nicholson said the pilot got as close as possible to shore before setting down in shallow water. Inamine seized only on the 100-mewer proximity to land, not the reason.
“A few seconds difference and it could have crashed into a residential area,” he said. “It was fortunate that no one on the ground was involved in the crash.”
“I have been calling for the cancellation of the deployment of the Ospreys to Okinawa because of a strong concern among the public about the safety of the aircraft,” the governor added. “I am greatly shocked that the fear became the reality.”
Protesters were equally indignant.
“There is no way to dispel our fear of the safety of the Ospreys with such an explanation,” said core protester Yoko Yamaguchi, who vowed to never stop fighting the aircraft. “The Ospreys have caused so many accidents in the United States. It was good because no one got hurt? How dare they say such a thing. There is no way that we are convinced with such an explanation.”
Japanese officials maintained that the crash inspired an increased sense of urgency to close Futenma, located in a heavily populated area, and place the airfield on the coast at Schwab.
“Removing the danger of Futenma air station and moving the operations to Henoko are our ultimate priorities,” Japan’s Vice Minister of Defense Kenji Wakamiya said Thursday after meeting with Ginowan Mayor Atsushi Sakima.
Sakima said regardless of the cause of the crash, it does not lessen the fears of his residents.
“Whatever the cause may be, it is an undeniable fact that it gave residents great fear and anxiety,” he said.
A special adviser to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet, Tomohiko Taniguchi, vowed the alliance would endure.
“The U.S.-Japan alliance has overcome various shocks of this kind in the past,” he said. “This accident cannot shake the foundation of the alliance … I want Marines to know that there are many people in Japan, including on Okinawa, who are grateful to their dedicated service.”