Okinawa: Ongoing mass protests at US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma

Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2012
News photo
A group of protesters, including Nago Mayor Susumu Inamine (front row, second from right), rally against the aircraft’s deployment at the air base’s front gate. KYODO

Okinawa residents protest transfer of six Ospreys to base

Low-altitude test flights of controversial tilt-rotor aircraft set for this month

By AYAKO MIE, Japan Times Online, Staff writer

Six MV-22 Ospreys were transferred Monday morning to U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa, the Defense Ministry said, as local residents protested vociferously in front of the base.

It is not clear when the remaining six tilt-rotor Ospreys currently at the U.S. Iwakuni air station in Yamaguchi Prefecture will arrive in Okinawa, but the U.S. Marine Corps is expected to deploy all 12 to Futenma and start low-altitude test flights across Japan later this month.

The hybrid transport aircraft’s deployment to Futenma, situated in a heavily populated neighborhood in Ginowan, comes despite Tokyo and Washington’s failure to placate local opposition.

Okinawans remain deeply concerned over the aircraft’s safety following the crash of an Osprey in Morocco that killed two marines in April and a second accident in June that injured five crew members in Florida.

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda issued a statement Monday reiterating that the central government is convinced MV-22s are safe to fly over Japanese territory and urging that progress be made in relocating Futenma to a more sparsely populated area of Okinawa to ease local fears.

“We will try to distribute the burden on Okinawa by transferring Osprey training flights from the prefecture to mainland Japan,” Noda said.

Although the central government cleared the MV-22s as safe to fly Sept. 19, effectively authorizing their dispatch to Okinawa, the move came under fire from locals who claim officials blindly endorsed U.S. investigations into the two crashes, which concluded they were caused by human rather than mechanical error.

As the Ospreys arrived at Futenma, scores of Okinawans continued to protest and voice their opposition in front of the facility’s gates. On Sunday, police forcibly removed residents and activists, further fueling local anger.

“We will not accept aircraft that could possibly come crashing down on us,” Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima said Monday.

Last week, the Defense Ministry invited the heads of municipalities in Okinawa and several governors to take part in Osprey test rides in Iwakuni. However, the last-ditch effort to win them over was rejected by three governors, including Nakaima, and 22 heads of local governments who feared their participation would be misinterpreted as an endorsement of the aircraft’s safety.

Following the crashes in Morocco and Florida, Tokyo and Washington went to extraordinary lengths to reassure the public about the Osprey’s safety.

In a highly unusual move, the U.S. government shared the investigative probes on both incidents with Noda’s administration and the Japan-U.S. Joint Committee hammered out additional safety measures Sept. 19, such as prohibiting MV-22s from flying lower than 500 feet (about 150 meters) during low-altitude tests, or over sensitive facilities including nuclear power plants, congested areas, schools, hospitals, airports and sites of historical significance.

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