U.S. helicopter crash heightens anti-base protests in Okinawa

August 06, 2013


Local leaders in Okinawa Prefecture were discussing ways to protest the deployment of the U.S. military’s Osprey aircraft when a report arrived that prompted Atsushi Toma to rush out of the Aug. 5 meeting.

Toma is the mayor of Ginoza, and a U.S. Air Force helicopter had just crashed in the area. When he returned to Ginoza, he saw smoke rising from the accident site in a mountain forest.

“There are almost daily training exercises by U.S. military helicopters in our village,” Toma said. “This just brings to harsh reality the fact that we live very close to danger. I will deal with the U.S. military on this matter with a firm attitude.”

The accident is fueling already-high safety concerns about U.S. military aircraft--particularly the tilt-rotor Osprey--in Okinawa Prefecture. It could also lead to further delays in resolving a sticking point in Japan-U.S. relations.

Under a Japan-U.S. agreement, the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma will be relocated from the densely populated city of Ginowan to the Henoko district of Nago in the prefecture. Washington has called for progress on the relocation, but opposition from residents who want the air station moved outside Okinawa Prefecture has slowed the plan.

The Abe administration has submitted an application with the Okinawa prefectural government to begin land reclamation work at Henoko for the relocation.

If local opposition further escalates because of the helicopter crash, Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima may find it more difficult to approve the application.

“The shock created by such a major accident as the most recent one is immeasurable,” Susumu Matayoshi, head of the Okinawa governor’s office, said. “When we think about public sentiment, we cannot say there will be no effect on the application for reclamation work.”

A decision by the prefectural government is expected this year.

The HH-60 helicopter crashed around 4 p.m. on Aug. 5. Three military personnel on board were reported safe, but a fourth one was missing. No residents were injured in the accident.

Since 1972, when Okinawa was returned to Japan, 44 crashes involving U.S. military aircraft have occurred, leaving 84 people dead, injured or missing.

Okinawa residents have long protested about the dangers of U.S. military drills and crimes committed by U.S. personnel. But the tiny island prefecture remains home to 75 percent of U.S. military facilities in Japan.

Demonstrations erupted in the prefecture and other areas of Japan over plans to deploy 12 Osprey to Okinawa last year. Still, the aircraft with a spotty safety record arrived at the Futenma base last autumn.

All 41 municipalities in Okinawa Prefecture opposed the deployment of the Osprey, which takes off like a helicopter and flies like an airplane.

Nakaima, Toma and other mayors of municipalities that host U.S. military bases held their meeting on Aug. 5 in response to the landing of two Osprey in Okinawa on Aug. 3, part of a plan to station 12 additional aircraft in the prefecture.

After the accident, the U.S. Marines said the deployment of the remaining 10 Osprey would be delayed.

“Something unacceptable has occurred. It is very unfortunate,” Ginowan Mayor Atsushi Sakima said about the crash. “We will have to consider how we deal with the additional deployment (of the Osprey).”

Concerns were also raised by officials in Kadena, which hosts the U.S. Kadena Air Base where the HH-60 helicopter was based.

“The helicopter involved in the accident frequently flew over local residents and surrounding areas during training,” said Kadena Mayor Hiroshi Toyama. “If the deployment of the Osprey should continue, there will likely be strong opposition raised by the people of Okinawa toward the central government and the U.S. military.”

Japanese government officials were moving to contain the political fallout from the helicopter crash.

On Aug. 5, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida called U.S. Ambassador John Roos to ask for measures to prevent a recurrence. Roos said every effort would be made to determine the cause of the accident and to provide information related to the crash.

At a speech in Kobe, Shigeru Ishiba, secretary-general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party who was once defense minister, said, “There is no intention on the part of both the government and the U.S. military to make only a half-hearted effort at uncovering the cause of the accident.”

Those in Okinawa said the U.S. helicopter crash was not surprising.

Masaaki Gabe, a professor of international politics at the University of the Ryukyus, noted that helicopters often fly at low altitudes during training exercises.

“Accidents occur all the time,” he said. “It just so happened that the crash site this time was in the mountains. I hope people from around Japan will think about why only residents of a specific area have to be exposed to this danger.”

Ikuo Nishikawa, who heads a group in Nago opposed to relocating the Futenma air station to the Henoko district, said he has grown accustomed to accidents involving U.S. military aircraft.

“The reality we face in our daily lives is having U.S. military helicopters flying over residential districts. It would have been a major tragedy if the helicopter had crashed in a residential area,” he said.

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A U.S. military helicopter sprays fire retardant over the site of a helicopter crash in Ginoza, Okinawa Prefecture, on Aug. 6. (Wataru Sekita)

A U.S. military helicopter sprays fire retardant over the site of a helicopter crash in Ginoza, Okinawa Prefecture, on Aug. 6. (Wataru Sekita)

  • A U.S. military helicopter sprays fire retardant over the site of a helicopter crash in Ginoza, Okinawa Prefecture, on Aug. 6. (Wataru Sekita)
  • Protesters opposing the deployment of Osprey aircraft confront police officers in front of Futenma air base in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture, on Aug. 6. (Shoma Fujiwaki)

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