Late on the evening of December 13, I received word from a highly reliable source that an MV-22 Osprey, later identified as belonging to the medium tiltrotor squadron VMM-265 stationed at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, had gone down off the eastern coast of Okinawa Prefecture earlier at approximately 9:30 p.m. He mentioned the crash had happened in water, implying that it was not over land and thus, with a mutual sense of relief, we could assume that no local residents had been injured or directly involved.
I asked my Okinawan friend what the weather conditions were like, because in Kansai where I now live, it was a rainy and generally miserable night. He said that it was a nice evening there, but I later learned that the wind had been quite strong offshore. I sensed that conditions, therefore, were not ideal, having experienced night-time aviation training with the same Osprey squadron in a stormy night in late January this year, which I had requested in order to better understand and appreciate the differences with which the pilots and crew are faced when compared to daytime missions when visibility is much better and natural.
While the several simultaneous investigations of the incident (technically called here a “water landing”) are ongoing, these wind conditions or a sudden gust likely caused the rotor blades to cut the refueling line, damaging the aircraft. In other words, it was not a mechanical failure of the aircraft, which despite its unique vertical lift capabilities, has long since achieved a record as being the safest plane in the Marine Corps’ inventory, but damage caused to it during a training incident.
As a result of this mid-air occurrence, which took place during aerial refueling operations with an Air Force C-130 tanker over the ocean about 30 kilometers off the coast of Okinawa, the pilots (there are always two pilots aboard flying, and at least two crew members in the rear) decided to fly the aircraft around the northern point of Okinawa at Cape Hedo and down south along the eastern coast to Camp Schwab to avoid flying over local communities.
While I am a strong critic of the plan to relocate the functions of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to Camp Schwab, its being adjacent to water (like many airports in Japan) is indeed one of its merits—the ability to access it from the sea and thus, in principle, not to have to fly over land or local communities. Unfortunately in this case, the aircraft, having traveled as far as it did while damaged, was not able to make it the final few kilometers to Schwab. The pilots then made a “conscious decision” to land it in the shallow waters off Cape Gimi near a 30-household hamlet in the village of Abu. It was a controlled landing in water, and while it was a hard landing, it cannot be described as a crash by any means due to the control exercised by the pilots over the aircraft until the very end.
Although subsequent photos show a mangled wreck, a lot of that has to do with the waves that have been pounding the aircraft afterwards. Indeed, the structure of the plane and its safety features made it possible for all five members to survive, most of them with only light wounds. Two were more seriously injured, but they were all found safe and subsequently rescued and airlifted via HH-60G, 33rd Rescue Squadron from Kadena Air Base, to the Naval Hospital on Camp Foster.
Despite the heroic success of the pilots and crew to avoid flying over local areas and possibly injuring residents, their praiseworthy efforts to try to land back on a near-enough U.S. military installation that could support any maintenance or repair work, and the fact it was a training-related mishap versus any mechanical problem with the MV-22 aircraft itself that seems to have been the cause of the emergency landing, Okinawa Prefecture Governor Takeshi Onaga immediately launched into criticisms and accusations, and the local and vocal anti-base media made much of the news and quickly politicized it.
While the full contents of a subsequent meeting between Okinawan government officials and U.S. officials the following morning have not been made public, Vice Governor Mitsuo Ageda, interviewed afterwards by the media gathered outside Gate 1 of Camp Foster, accused the senior-most U.S. military official in Okinawa, Lt. Gen Lawrence D. Nicholson, the Commanding General of III Marine Expeditionary Force, of speaking condescendingly and telling him in a high-handed manner to show appreciation. There is some merit to that. According to reports, the meeting started off poorly when Ageda launched into an attack over the mishap without inquiring about the condition of the crewmembers, which bothered Nicholson who is said to have implied that the vice governor had nothing to complain about as no Okinawan citizens were involved thanks to the efforts of the pilots. Things went downhill from there.
Having been in a position similar to Nicholson’s before, I have seen how much the prefectural and local governments seek to politicize issues and how the local media seeks to perpetuate a victimization narrative, both of which harms the solidarity of the Japan-U.S. alliance and bilateral friendship and trust. These stances have only increased during the governorship of Takeshi Onaga whose unspoken strategy is to make it so unpleasant for the U.S. military to continue to stay in Okinawa that eventually forces will be withdrawn.
Symbolic of this, Ageda immediately relayed his version of the meeting to the waiting media, who was able to broadcast in time for their mid-day news, further inciting the public. He also primed the media to be critical of Nicholson, who had scheduled an afternoon press conference, and whose military mannerisms were perfect fodder for news soundbites by those who wanted to portray the American side as continuing an “occupation mentality” and indifferent to the plight of Okinawan residents. Expectedly, the evening broadcasts and morning newspapers did not portray the handling in a positive light. While there has been much support for the message and conviction portrayed among supporters, there have been other supporters who have been greatly worried about the public relations of it.
Another problem likely having occurred during the morning meeting with Ageda may have involved the perennial miscommunication that exists between our two countries. There seems to have been a significant mistranslation or misunderstanding. Namely, a possibly-used phrase, “be thankful for,” may have been interpreted incorrectly to mean “you must be thankful for” rather than “we should all be thankful that…” accidentally by the U.S. side. Or it simply could have been intentionally misrepresented by the Okinawan representatives afterwards. If the former, it highlights some of the structural problems that exist today in the public affairs and community relations by the command in Okinawa, but if the latter, it shows just how much politics has trumped statesmanship in the Okinawa approach to basing issues over the years.
This was particularly seen after Nicholson personally addressed reporters on the afternoon of December 14 to describe what happened the previous evening to the best of his knowledge. After explaining that he had concluded a meeting with Vice Governor Ageda who had expressed in “strongest terms” his concerns about safe operations of the aircraft and the safety of the public to which Nicholson responded that he fully understood, publicly thanked the Okinawa Prefecture Police and Japanese Coast Guard for securing the site as well as the local public for its prayers for the crew. The three-star general then stated that he regretted the incident but praised the “incredible decision [of the pilots] under very, very difficult circumstances.” After emphasizing the resourcefulness of the MV-22, he explained that he temporarily halted the operations of the aircraft until he was satisfied with the internal review, and focused on the measures being taken to recover the aircraft without harming the environment while emphasizing his awareness of the safety of the citizens. Nevertheless, some in the media, colored by the early hysteria, remained critical and called on him to “apologize” instead of limiting it to “regrets.” Nicholson clarified that a “regret is an apology.”
Of course, the U.S. side is not perfect. Regardless of whether officials want to admit it, there has been bilateral, local, and presumably internal miscommunication in the handling of the issue, an apparent early failure to follow previously practiced trilateral (U.S.-Japan-Prefectural) procedures following an aircraft mishap established after the 2004 CH-53 crash on the grounds of a local university, and a problem with the contents of messages and their delivery. Furthermore, as I have long argued, the U.S. side tends to forget that the handling of an accident or incident after it occurs is only as good as what is done before such an event happens. In other words, day-to-day relations of trust and transparency are vital. Sincerity before, during, and after is key. Learning from this experience, and turning this incident—both the mishap itself and the handling of it—are important, as is making something good come from it, using creativity and imagination.
This has nationwide implications as well. The Ground Self-Defense Force will be acquiring the V-22s for use at Saga Airport in Kyushu and a maintenance facility will be built at Kisarazu Air Field in Chiba Prefecture. Municipalities in the area are in the process now of deciding whether or not to accept them. While both of these airports are located along the coast, Yokota Air Base, which is far inland, is scheduled to receive the deployment of the Air Force version of the aircraft, the CV-22s. Diplomacy, it should be remembered, is as much about national sentiments, on both sides, as it is about national interests.
However, the extreme rhetoric of Okinawa Governor Onaga has made dialogue on this and many other issues difficult, both for the U.S. military but especially for the Japanese government. “After a thorough, careful and exhaustive review of MV-22 aviation safety procedures” and briefings to the Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Foreign Affairs, U.S. Forces Japan decided to resume flights on December 19. In doing so, the Marine Corps announced it was confident in the “safety and reliability” of the aircraft and stressed that it was “important that we ensure our pilots have every opportunity to conduct training, which allows us to remain proficient, and enable us to respond when most needed in support of the Alliance.” In response to this move, Onaga, who had previously gone to Tokyo to protest the mishap, declared that it was “useless” to work with the central government and that it could not be relied on. He also boycotted an important ceremony permitting the return of 4,000 hectares of land in the Northern Training Area which had been in the process since agreed to in 1996.
These are examples in a long line of Onaga’s emotionally charged political stands since his election exactly two years ago. When faced with national decisions he does not like, he lashes out, accusing the other side of “discrimination,” “arrogance,” “ignorance,” “aloofness,” “insensitivity,” and others (such as officials in the central government or U.S. military) of talking down upon him or the people of the prefecture. His comments are unfortunately amplified by the local media, always looking for a fight, and sympathetic national and foreign media, always looking for a cause from far away Tokyo while being misinformed by their limited contacts in Okinawa.
Interestingly, while all of this goes on, Onaga himself has become increasingly isolated within Okinawa proper. Having just returned from a trip to Okinawa during the time of the above events, it was clear most residents understood what took place and why the U.S. military resumed flights, even if some did not like the tone of the message. In other words, most of Okinawa Prefecture’s 1.5 million residents who even showed an interest sensed or knew that it was not the aircraft itself that was at fault. Many, too, have learned not to believe the sensationalism of the media and its agenda-filled reporting and thus did not take its writings at face value.
This is in part because of the record the MV-22s have established. There has not been a mishap with the Ospreys here since their deployment to Japan in July 2012, and despite the volatile political environment and the intense media scrutiny 1st Marine Air Wing experienced at the time, VMM-265 won not only a Chief of Naval Operations aviation safety award for 2013 but also the hearts of minds of the people of Japan. Hundreds of thousands of people over the years have turned out to see the MV-22s of VMM-265 (known as the “Dragons”) joined by sister squadron VMM-262 (known as the “Flying Tigers”) in August 2013, and thousands more have been helped in natural disasters throughout the region, including the April 2016 Kumamoto Earthquake. In fact, one of the pilots involved in the mishap served in the Kumamoto relief operations and it was the very same type of aerial refueling operations that got him and his plane to Kumamoto from a just concluded regional training exercise in the Philippines to help with the disaster response.
As the above example shows, the MV-22s not only serve U.S. military requirements for medium-size unique multi-mission capable aircraft, but are here in support of Japan’s needs as well. It is, in other words, an alliance asset, one that Japan itself currently does not possess. The fact that the aircraft was able to fly while damaged as far as it did demonstrates its durability, reliability, and safety. While the governor, who has yet to fly on the MV-22 himself, may not understand or recognize this for his own political and anti-science reasons, I can assure you the reader that many of the people of the prefecture do, despite media efforts to suggest otherwise.
However, this incident suggests further outreach efforts remain vital, and thus must not be seen as the end but the beginning of discussions and the rebuilding of mutual trust and confidence. It also brings home the fact to everyone that freedom is not free, that costs must be borne, not only by the military members of both of our nations but also by the citizens as well. Fortunately, although a very expensive Osprey was lost, an even more precious life—Okinawan or American—was not.
Robert D. Eldridge is a former tenured associate professor of Japanese political and diplomatic history at Osaka University, served as the political and public diplomacy advisor and deputy assistant chief of staff, G-7 (Government and External Affairs), Marine Corps Installations Pacific, in Okinawa, from 2009-2015 and is the award-wining author, editor, translator, and contributor to more than sixty books about U.S.-Japan relations, including The Origins of the Bilateral Okinawa Problem (Routledge, 2001).