Editorial: Is the Japanese government merely a mouthpiece for the United States in the Osprey deployment plan?

Easily swayed by a foreign government, the Japanese government is putting its own people under a cloud of anxiety and risk. Who in heaven’s name is the Japanese government representing?

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s administration has accepted the U.S. Marine Corps’ plan to deploy Osprey transport aircraft, with its capability to make vertical takeoffs and landings. The United States has formally notified the Japanese government that in late July the Ospreys will first be brought to the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in Iwakuni, Yamaguchi Prefecture, where test flights will be carried out, before they are deployed at the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture.

As recently as two weeks ago, an Air Force Osprey crashed in Florida, but the Japanese government has blindly accepted the U.S. government’s assurances that the aircraft is safe.

It is only natural that the governors and mayors of the areas where the U.S. military bases are located have been unanimous in expressing their opposition to the plan.

Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto will visit Okinawa and Yamaguchi Prefectures starting today. He himself said decisively, “As the investigation of the accident has not been completed, I know as an ordinary citizen that it is unreasonable to hope that the public will believe in the safety of the aircraft.” Why, then, doesn’t he ask the United States to wait?

The test flights at Iwakuni will reportedly be postponed until the report on the Florida accident is released. The Japanese government appears to want the public to understand that they negotiated with the U.S. side and were successful in getting the United States to offer consideration to the local municipalities. Still, whether or not test flights will be conducted remains the prerogative of the United States.

But in the first place, can the U.S. military’s assurances about the Osprey be believed? The aircraft has had a series of major accidents both during and following its development, with more than 30 crew members losing their lives. In the United States, reports have highlighted that the aircraft is incapable of performing an emergency landing in the event of complete engine failure.

Despite all this, the U.S. Defense Department claims that the aircraft is safe. It says that the fatal accident which occurred in Morocco in April was not caused by defects in the fuselage, but by human error. But the skill of the Osprey pilots must be taken into account in judging the aircraft’s risk.

There are also concerns over how the Ospreys will be used after they are deployed in Futenma. According to the environmental assessment report submitted to the Japanese government by the United States, the Ospreys will have training flights over various parts of the Japanese Archipelago. The Osprey deployment is not an issue limited to Okinawa but involving the entire nation. The possibility exists that locations across the country will be exposed to noise pollution in addition to the risk of an accident.

According to the report, Ospreys will fly to Iwakuni Air Station and Camp Fuji in Gotemba, Shizuoka Prefecture, two or three days a month. Although the runway has been shifted to an offshore location at Iwakuni, there are residential areas on the mountain side.

The report also says that Ospreys will fly at a low altitude in the same manner as fighter planes on six routes including the “orange route,” which cuts across the island of Shikoku. It is not clearly stated, but some speculate that the routes will include the “brown route,” which follows the Chugoku Mountains.

Because of the Japan-U.S. Status of Force Agreement, the United States may argue that they have the freedom to fly their aircraft anytime anywhere. Local governments in Japan have long raised protests against low-altitude flights by U.S. jet fighters. It is inexcusable for the United States to be adopting a defiant stance and seeking to use this opportunity of the Osprey deployment to increase the number of training flights.

Unless something is done, public distrust will only be exacerbated. This may even lead to a fundamental review of the Japan-U.S. security alliance.

Following the confusion surrounding the Futenma issue, the administration, led by the Democratic Party of Japan, seems to have been conspicuously currying favor with Washington. The current issue of the Osprey is surely linked to this attitude. Has the administration forgotten about its manifesto, which included an equal partnership between Japan and the United States?

It is not too late. Prime Minister Noda should now retrace his steps, ease the public’s anxiety, and ensure people’s safety. Defense Minister Morimoto should not be visiting Okinawa or Yamaguchi Prefectures. Rather, he ought to be working to dissuade the United States from pushing ahead with the plan to deploy the Osprey.

(Originally published on June 30, 2012)