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U.S. Sends Aircraft to Okinawa, Despite Fierce Opposition PDF Print E-mail
Peace News
Written by Joan Russow
Tuesday, 02 October 2012 06:28

TOKYO — The United States military sent the first batch of a sophisticated but accident-plagued new aircraft to an air base on Okinawa on Monday, going forward with its planned deployment despite unexpectedly fierce opposition by islanders and warnings that any crash could threaten the huge American military presence on the island.

Kyodo News, via Associated Press
The first six of the MV-22 Osprey aircraft arrived at Marine Corps Air  tation Futenma, the Japanese Defense Ministry said. It said another six of the ungainly-looking aircraft were due to arrive this week at the base, in the center of the crowded city of Ginowan. The United States is counting on the deployment to serve as part of the Obama administration’s plan to increase the American military presence in the region and offset the growing strength of China and a nuclear-armed North Korea.

The Osprey — whose tilting rotors allow it to take off like a helicopter but fly like a fixed-wing aircraft — flies four times as far as the Vietnam-era helicopters it is replacing, putting the more than 15,000 Marines on Okinawa within reach of potential hot spots like Taiwan and a group of disputed islands in the East China Sea known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China.

The Japanese government has backed the deployment, apparently at least partly out of hopes that it will help deter China’s recently assertive claims to those islands, which Japan controls. The United States Defense Department says it has displayed sensitivity to local feelings by delaying the Osprey deployment as long as possible.

However, both Washington and Tokyo are facing an unusually strong pushback from many of the 1.4 million residents on Okinawa, including a large demonstration and acts of civil disobedience of a sort not seen here in decades. A rally last month drew as many as 100,000 people, the largest anti-base demonstration on the island since a similar-size one that followed the rape of an Okinawan schoolgirl by three American servicemen in 1995.

On the surface, the outrage has been fueled by concerns about the safety of the aircraft, which had a troubled development and suffered two crashes earlier this year. In the lobby of the Ginowan City Hall, a large display warned of the risks by describing a 1959 crash by an American jet that killed 17 people, including 11 schoolchildren.

But Okinawan political leaders and analysts said the issue had become a lightning rod for deeper grievances over how Washington and Tokyo have imposed what islanders see as an excessive base burden on this tropical island.

Anger has spread beyond those island residents who oppose the base from the left. Even conservatives, who have traditionally backed Japan’s postwar security alliance with the United States, warn that Okinawans could now turn violently against not only Futenma but also the entire American presence.

“Anger has been building up like hot magma beneath the surface, and the Osprey could be what finally causes an eruption,” said Takeshi Onaga, the mayor of Naha, the Okinawan capital, and a member of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party. “If they force the Osprey onto us, this could lead to a collapse of the U.S.-Japan alliance.”

Of course, opposition to the American bases is nothing new in Okinawa, and it remains unclear how far the protesters would actually go. However, most analysts in Japan and the United States seem to agree that Okinawan anger is reaching levels unseen in recent times. They say this has put the United States in a difficult position. “You cannot let politics dictate what platform you use,” said James Schoff, a former senior adviser on East Asia affairs for the Office of the Secretary of Defense. “But in this environment, an accident is going to be like setting a match to a tinderbox.”

Japanese officials say they have tried to allay Okinawan concerns by conducting their own inquiries into the recent crashes, with the inquiries accepting the Pentagon’s findings that pilot error was to blame. During a visit to Tokyo last month, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta signed an agreement to allow the Osprey to fly in Japan with restrictions aimed at ensuring safety.

However, those efforts have failed to appease the island’s deeply rooted anger. With more than half of the 50,000 American military personnel in Japan stationed there, many Okinawans say their island remains a virtual military colony, long after the United States returned it to Japan in 1972. Okinawans say this has led to increased awareness about the discrimination that they say Okinawa has suffered since Japan seized the once-independent kingdom in the 1870s.

The sense of alienated outrage adds to the longstanding anger over Futenma, which has become a symbol of the Japanese failure to ease Okinawa’s burden. Tokyo and Washington still have yet to put into place a 16-year-old deal to relocate the base from Ginowan, which was originally signed in response to the 1995 rape case. Three years ago, frustrations reached a new high when the left-leaning Yukio Hatoyama, then the prime minister of Japan, raised hopes by promising to move the base off Okinawa, only to renege in the face of domestic and American pressure.

Okinawan emotions remain raw at what was seen as Mr. Hatoyama’s betrayal.

Okinawa got a taste of civil disobedience over the weekend, when police officers with riot shields towed more than a dozen vehicles that protesters had used to briefly seal off the Futenma base’s three gates — something opponents say they have not tried before.

“If they impose that dangerous thing on us, then all hell will break loose,” said Satoru Oshiro, 48, a labor union employee who joined a dozen protesters to use two vans to block the base’s Nodake Gate on a recent morning. “Enough is enough.”


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