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US Humiliates Japanese Allies over Osprey Aircraft

SNA Photo: January 2013 protest against Osprey deployment to Japan

SNA (Tokyo) — Since most of the mainstream media will refuse to connect the dots, and the story is being overshadowed by threats of nuclear war, it is worth pausing for a moment to recount the sequence of events connected with the grounding of the V-22 Osprey aircraft.

The Osprey has been deeply controversial in Japan since then-Defense Minister Masahiko Komura announced in April 2008 that the aircraft could be deployed by the US military domestically. Despite public protests, that deployment actually took place in the latter half of 2012.

The objection of the protestors is their claim that the Osprey, once known as the “widowmaker” due to its record of killing its own crews, is a fundamentally unsound and unsafe aircraft, and a menace to public safety. They regard it as largely a matter of time before a malfunctioning Osprey crashes down upon some innocent Japanese civilians below, most likely in Okinawa which has been repeatedly exposed to similar tragedies.

While that worst-case scenario has thankfully not yet occurred, the Osprey has been involved in a number of mishaps over the past five years. There have been repeated reports of unscheduled, emergency landings, and a major accident just off the coast of Nago last December.

That sets the backdrop for what occurred this past week. We will present it as a timeline so that the significance of the order of events is made clear.

Osprey Accident Off Australia: On August 5, a major Osprey accident took place off the coast of Queensland, Australia, in which 3 of the 26 US military servicemen on board were killed. For most Japanese, this was yet another confirmation that the aircraft is a public danger.

Japan Requests Osprey Grounding: On August 6, new Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera announced to the media, “We have asked the US military to provide information, investigate the cause of the accident, prevent a reoccurrence, and, in the meantime, we request that they refrain from flying Osprey aircraft inside of Japanese territory.” Local leaders around Japan—including those in Saga and Hokkaido—expressed their support for Onodera’s position, demanding that the safety of Osprey operations be confirmed.

US Marines Ignore Japan’s Request: On the morning following Defense Minister Onodera’s request for a grounding, the US Marines flew Osprey aircraft without any change to their regular routine, and without any comment or formal response to the Japanese government.

Okinawa Demands Action: On August 7, Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga declared, “It’s a terrible aircraft! Investigating the cause doesn’t cut it, because the Japanese government has proven to have no ability to tell the Americans to do anything.” Vice-Governor Moritake Tomikawa stated to the media that it is “extremely regrettable” and personally visited the local office of the Defense Ministry to demand the US Ospreys be grounded.

US Military Claims Osprey Flights Necessary: Later the same day, it is revealed that the US Marines communicated to the Japanese government that they would not comply with the request that they ground the Osprey aircraft. They declared that they had confirmed its safety and such flights were “necessary.”

Suga Tries to Fudge the Issue: Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga attempted to obscure the reality of the confrontation on August 8 by saying that the Defense Ministry’s request was not that all US military Osprey flights be grounded, but that an exception existed for those that were “necessary.” In practical terms, since the US military deems all of its training flights as “necessary,” Suga was announcing a de facto collapse of the Defense Ministry’s position.

Okinawa Minister Questions SOFA: The kindly but clueless new minister in charge of Okinawa issues, Tetsuma Esaki, suggested on the morning of the 8th that perhaps the US-Japan Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) might have to be revised. His notion appeared to be that it was unacceptable that the US military should so easily defy the host government’s request for the grounding of the controversial aircraft.

Suga Reverses Himself: On the morning of the 9th, after a series of news reports pointing out the vast practical difference between what Defense Minister Onodera was saying and his own suggestion that “necessary” Osprey flights were permissible, Suga reversed himself. He withdrew his comments of the previous day and confirmed that Japan’s position was that the US military should stop flying the Osprey inside the country.

Okinawa Minister Reverses Himself: At about the same time, Okinawa Minister Esaki backed off his own comments of the previous day, saying that he’d not expressed himself clearly and was not questioning the Japanese government’s position regarding maintaining the SOFA.

US Military Again Rejects Japan’s Request: On the 10th, the US military stated that they had confirmed the safety of the Osprey aircraft and they refused to accept the host nation’s request that it be grounded.

Defense Ministry Position Collapses: On the 11th, faced by a US military which stonily refused to respond in any face-saving manner to their demand, and probably with the Prime Minister’s Office urging them to obfuscate the confrontation, as Suga had already attempted, the Defense Ministry position collapsed. They announced that it was “possible” that Osprey aircraft could be operated safely and thus authorized their continued flights (which had never stopped in any case).

Marines Order 24-Hour Osprey Grounding: General Robert Neller, Commandant of the Marines, orders a global “operational reset” for a 24 hour-period in which no Osprey flight operations will take place. This comes despite the repeated assurances they had given to Japan that the safety of the Osprey had already been confirmed.

Two major lessons emerge from this past week. First, that the US government feels no compunction about dismissing the Japanese government’s requests as the host nation for US military bases, and will not even bother to help them save face or avoid public humiliation in front of their own people. Second, that Japan cannot even now be said to be a fully sovereign nation vis-a-vis the United States, its former military occupier.

As Okinawa Governor Onaga expressed it today: “We cannot say other than that Japan’s independence is a myth.”

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