Iwakuni mayor, Yamaguchi governor meet defense minister, express opposition to bringing U.S. aircraft to Iwakuni

by Toru Sakai and Hidekazu Yamada, Staff Writers

On July 1, Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto visited Yamaguchi Prefecture and met with Iwakuni Mayor Yoshihiko Fukuda and Yamaguchi Governor Sekinari Nii to explain the U.S. military’s plan to bring the MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor transport aircraft to Iwakuni. Mr. Morimoto sought to gain their understanding, but both Mr. Fukuda and Mr. Nii flatly objected to the plan. Earlier on the same day, Mr. Morimoto spoke with Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima.

The Japanese government and local municipalities have no legal authority to block U.S. military deployment. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda will likely be tested as the United States moves to advance the deployment plan.

After the defense minister met with Mayor Fukuda at Iwakuni City Hall, Mr. Fukuda commented, “The city of Iwakuni has taken a cooperative stance toward the nation’s defense policy. If the Osprey should be forcibly unloaded onto Iwakuni, it could impair the relationship of trust between the national government and our municipality.” Mr. Fukuda urged the Japanese government to request that the United States abandon the plan, saying, “Under the current conditions, where there are still concerns over the safety of the aircraft, we cannot accept the plan to bring this aircraft to Iwakuni, whether or not test flights are made.”

The defense minister then met with Governor Nii at the prefectural government office. Mr. Nii criticized the central government, saying, “The government’s approach is to act as if the schedule were a foregone conclusion. This is a palliative measure for a fait accompli.”

Mr. Morimoto asked for the governor’s understanding, saying that the Japanese government had taken the unprecedented step of gaining a U.S. promise to put off the planned test flights. But the governor expressed strong opposition.

After the talks, Mr. Morimoto remarked to the media that “The feedback I received was blunt. I will consult with the prime minister and the other cabinet members concerned.”

The U.S. plans to bring the Osprey into the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in late July and conduct test flights before the aircraft begins operations in early October from its base at the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture. Test flights at Iwakuni will be postponed until an additional report on an accident, in which an Osprey crashed, is submitted to the Japanese government in August and the safety of the aircraft is confirmed.

(Originally published on July 2, 2012)