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The CV-22 Osprey and Other Military Aircraft Accidents: Looking to Tokyo for a Better Response

On the Osprey crash, what concerns are hype, and why did it take PM Kishida a week to express sympathy for the death of 8 Americans who were defending Japan?



CV22 Osprey was photographed on September 15, 2018 at the US military Yokota base in Tokyo. (©Kyodo)

A United States Air Force CV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft crashed off southern Japan on November 29. All 8 airmen aboard died. This is not the first accident involving American military aircraft in Japan, nor will it be the last.

Aviation accidents are part and parcel of military operations in peacetime and wartime. This is a tragic reality. Yet, in Japan, such crashes involving US military aircraft invariably result in a panicked response from Japanese authorities and others, including parts of the Japanese media.

Some observers in both Japan and the United States even claim that an accident involving US aircraft might collapse the entire Japan-US alliance. This, however, will only happen if the Japanese government is otherwise looking for an excuse to end the alliance.

Maritime Self-Defense Force vessels and fishing boats carrying US military personnel deployed in the area where the CV22 Osprey crashed. December 6,2023, off the coast of Yakushima. (© Kyodo)

Deciphering Japan's Response

An acquaintance asked a few questions about these accidents. This is how I responded.

Why do these incidents draw so much attention from the media and other quarters in Japan?  

Aircraft accidents are always a good "headline" as reporters know.  

But with Japan, such crashes get even more attention when they involve US forces.  

The US military presence was for many years a more sensitive issue ー rightly or wrongly ー than it is in recent years as the Chinese military threat to Japan has materialized. And anti-military / anti-US media used aircraft crashes to portray the American military presence as dangerous and needing to be removed. 

Leftist Japanese politicians used the crashes as evidence to rail against the US presence and erode the alliance.  


And the anti-military / anti-US part of the Japanese public – centered around the once formidable leftist political parties was similarly aroused.  

Japanese bureaucrats and officials reacted accordingly, aiming to head off popular opposition and a perceived threat to the alliance.

A Chinese naval vessel departs from Vladivostok in the Far East for a joint patrol with the Russian Navy on July 27 (©TASS News Agency)

Given the increased militarism among Japan's neighbors, does that negative mindset still survive?

These days some of this mindset is still around, but a good bit of the excessive attention and panicked response is the result of habit.  

"US aircraft crashes. Panic. Ask for a "stand down" for a bit and demand the Americans stop being so reckless. And then after a period of time, everything goes back to normal."

Given that that there is far less uproar when Japan Self-Defense Force aircraft crash, one detects some selective indignation at work.

Indeed, Japanese officialdom seems to be stuck in a bit of a time bubble and doesn't realize the Japanese public is not exactly seething. And in fact, mostly seems glad the US forces are still around to defend Japan.

What issues do Japanese people have with the Osprey in particular?

That depends on which Japanese one is talking about. Most Japanese don't give the matter much thought.

Some Japanese have heard the Ospreys are dangerous ー from leftist media, mostly.  Beyond that, they don't know very much.  

But ask yourself, how many Japanese do you know who go around every day worrying that an Osprey will fall out of the sky and squash them?  


None that I've met.

Governor Denny Tamaki inspects the construction site in Henoko, Nago City, Okinawa Prefecture, where the US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma will be relocated. Photo of May 19 (©Kyodo)

Why is opposition particularly intense in Okinawa? 

It is owing to a small but noisy and sometimes violent local opposition in Okinawa that opposes US forces and bases. (That includes outsiders from mainland Japan.) They latched onto the Osprey issue before the Osprey were even deployed to Japan.

Most Okinawans don't care all that much, or not at all. They have other things to worry about such as jobs, housing, children, looking after elderly parents, etc.

The Okinawa Prefectural Government, however, has special reason to complain about the Ospreys. It helps ensure that Tokyo will pay the annual $3 billion USD special subsidy to Okinawa. 

At least one other prefectural government has reportedly used complaints over the Osprey to squeeze huge amounts of money out of the central government to allow Osprey basing. This is a shakedown racket of the sort the yakuza would recognize ー if not envy.

Are the Osprey's noisy?  

Not really. They are quieter than All Nippon Airways or Japan Airlines jets flying into or out of Okinawa. Even commercial jets flying low over central Tokyo en route to Haneda Airport are noisier, as anyone (such as this writer) living under the flight path can attest.

A rubber boat carrying US military personnel is carrying out recovery operations near the area where the CV22 Osprey crashed. The area is off the coast of Yakushima, Kagoshima Prefecture, on December 6. (© Kyodo)

Are the safety concerns often expressed in Japan well-founded? Do Ospreys crash more often than other US-made aircraft?  

There is no evidence such is the case. Accident statistics for the CV-22 Osprey suggest they have fewer accidents than other US military aircraft types.

Indeed, review the list of commercial Boeing 737 crashes over the years and you'd practically be afraid to get in one.  

Given that Ospreys often fly low to the ground and in ways that commercial aircraft do not, it's surprising there aren't more accidents. That is a tribute to the skill of pilots, aircrew, and maintainers.

A former US Marine helicopter pilot commented to this writer about the Osprey:


It had difficulties in the beginning, but the USMC had not fielded a new rotary wing aircraft in decades and forgot the price we pay for development. When the stats are compared with other (newly introduced) aircraft, they all suffer similar losses. Then they are safe for a while, and then you start having age issues.

The CV-22 (Osprey) is costly, but not more dangerous. (It's) just a drama queen press corps that loves to sell copy based on emotion devoid of facts.

If the Japanese people were so concerned about the Osprey, why would Tokyo, specifically the Ground Self-Defense Force, choose exactly this aircraft type to help defend the country?

Once again, when you say "the Japanese people," which ones are you talking about? A noisy minority? Or the hundreds of thousands who flock to Japan Self-Defense Force and US military open-base days? Or the vast majority of Japanese who (according to opinion polls) want Japan to have a proper and effective military?

Ultimately, the Osprey issue seems trumped up. And it always has.

Self-Defense Force personnel disembarking from the GSDF V'Osprey. They participated in Japan-US joint training for the first time on March 15, 2022, at the Higashi-Fuji Maneuver Area in Shizuoka Prefecture.

What could the US military do to ease the concerns of the Japanese people regarding these and other U.S. aircraft operating in Japan? 

The Americans are doing everything they can. In fact, US forces, especially aviation units, have to leave Japan to be able to train properly to defend Japan. This is not rational.

When accidents happen, US forces do need to be as transparent and clear-spoken as possible. And they cannot send out contradictory messages as happened after this most recent incident.

But the Japanese government has got to start making the case publicly and loudly ー and often ー that the Americans are operating as safely as possible.

And enough with the rote criticism whenever an accident happens.

Indeed, eight American servicemen were killed – a few weeks before Christmas – conducting activities that were about defending Japan from an aggressive, expansionist China. 

And all Japan's government could do is complain about it.

Not a word of sympathy for the dead Americans or their families.

A week later, on December 6, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida issued a statement saying he was sorry.

That's too late.

A Maritime Self-Defense Force vessel continues to search the area where the US Air Force CV22 Osprey crash occurred, December 1, off the coast of Yakushima, Kagoshima Prefecture (©Kyodo)


Author: Grant Newsham
Grant Newsham is a retired US Marine officer and former US diplomat. He is the author of the book When China Attacks: A Warning To America. Find his articles on JAPAN Forward.

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