The top commander of the U.S. military in Okinawa said Wednesday its MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft will be grounded until their safety is reviewed, after one of the aircraft crash-landed off the island prefecture, reigniting safety concerns among the Japanese public.
Tokyo has urged the United States to determine the cause of Tuesday night's accident and thoroughly check the safety of the Ospreys. It was the first major accident involving the transport aircraft since the start of its deployment in Japan in 2012.
"We regret the incident," Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson said at a press conference at Camp Foster in Okinawa, adding, "I have decided that we will stop flying Ospreys here in Okinawa today and we will not fly again until I'm satisfied that we have reviewed...(the) safety of flight procedures."
An Osprey, which takes off and lands like a helicopter but cruises like a plane, crash-landed in shallow water off the eastern coast of Okinawa's main island after conducting aerial refueling training. All five crew members were airlifted and two of them sustained injuries.
Aerial photos of debris showed the fuselage and part of a wing about 80 meters off the shoreline. The area is near the Henoko district in Nago, where a facility to replace U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan, also in Okinawa, is expected to be built -- a plan strongly opposed by Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga.
Nicholson emphasized that it was clear that the incident occurred because the aircraft's propeller was damaged after cutting a hose extended from a refueling plane and the U.S. government has decided not to stop flying Ospreys in other countries.
He also said the pilot, knowing the aircraft was damaged, decided not to "fly over Okinawan homes and families" and instead landed in shallow water, which was a "heroic action" that prevented a disaster.
The U.S. commander also disclosed at the press conference that a different Osprey aircraft had made a belly landing the same night at the Futenma base. But he explained it was "a regular safe landing," although there was a problem with the landing gear.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters that the accident was "deplorable" and said safety should come first in Osprey flight operations.
Although TV footage of the accident site showed the Osprey aircraft had broken apart, both the U.S military and the Japanese government argued that the incident was not a "crash" but "a control landing" in an apparent effort to play down safety concerns among people in Okinawa and elsewhere.
Lt. Gen. Jerry Martinez, commander of U.S. Forces Japan, told Japanese Defense Minister Tomomi Inada over the phone that it appeared very unlikely that the main cause of the accident was due to the aircraft's systems, according to the Japanese Defense Ministry.
The latest accident may complicate the feud between the central and Okinawa governments over the relocation of the Futenma air base from a crowded residential area in Ginowan to the less populated Henoko coastal area.
The dispute between Tokyo and Okinawa has already turned into a legal fight, with the Supreme Court set to hand down its ruling next Tuesday that is expected to be in favor of the central government, which is pushing the relocation plan.
Onaga and many people in Okinawa, which hosts the bulk of U.S. forces in Japan, want the Marine base to be relocated outside the prefecture. Opposition to the relocation plan could increase in the wake of the accident as Osprey aircraft are also likely to operate at the replacement facility.
"I'm very shocked because what we have worried about became a reality...I want Ospreys to be grounded immediately and have the aircraft removed (from the prefecture)," Onaga told Japanese defense and foreign ministry officials at the prefectural office.
Nago Mayor Susumu Inamine said it is "perfectly clear that danger will increase once a new base" is built in the city.
Osprey aircraft have been a matter of concern in Japan for some time, given a slew of fatal accidents involving the aircraft that have occurred overseas, most recently a landing accident in Hawaii in May 2015 that left one crew member dead.
The U.S. military has deployed 24 MV-22s at the Futenma base between 2012 and 2013 and plans to deploy the CV-22, the Air Force variant of the MV-22, at Yokota Air Base in a Tokyo suburb in 2017.
Japan's Ground Self-Defense Force also plans to introduce a total of 17 Osprey aircraft and begin using some in the year starting April 2019. The Defense Ministry has made a positive assessment of the aircraft's transport capabilities.
People outside Okinawa also voiced anxiety, including in the city of Saga, which has been asked by the central government to host the aircraft when the GSDF procures them, as well as in Iwakuni, Yamaguchi Prefecture, which hosts a Marine base that Ospreys frequently fly in and out of.