In recent weeks the U.S. Marine Corps has begun to deploy the V-22 Osprey to Okinawa, Japan. The Osprey flies like a propeller plane but can take off and land like a helicopter, providing more speed than the latter but more tactical flexibility than the former. It has also reignited the long-standing debate between Japan and the United States over the future of the Marines' presence on Okinawa. Critics have called the airplane unsafe and demanded its redeployment back to the United States. While flight data do not confirm this specific allegation, policymakers in Tokyo and Washington do need to realize they have an even bigger problem -- and search for a new, less intrusive way of basing Marines on this small island at the southern end of the Japanese archipelago.
The question of the Marines on Okinawa has been contentious for some two decades now. Numbering between 15,000 and 20,000 at a time there, they have constituted more than a third of the U.S. military presence in Japan, on an overpopulated island that itself represents well under 1 percent of the Japanese landmass. On top of those Marines, another 10,000 or so Air Force personnel continue to be based at the Kadena Air Base on Okinawa as well. The Marines have been resented locally not only for their sheer numbers, but for Air Station Futenma, which is surrounded by residential neighborhoods and schools in the city of Ginowan. The occasional accident there has put anxiety into the hearts of many who fear a worse accident in the future; moreover, as Okinawa is one of Japan's only prefectures actually growing in population, local officials want the land for other purposes.
There is a lot to say in defense of the Marine Corps, as well as the U.S. position, starting with the fact that these forces serve common alliance interests in a stable Asia-Pacific region. Washington has tried to work with Tokyo to relocate the base, the most recent proposal being to build an airfield on the shore of Henoko Bay farther north in a much less populated part of Okinawa. But Japanese national and local politics have repeatedly gotten in the way. In 2006, the United States and Japan agreed to relocate almost half the Okinawa-based Marines to Guam in the coming years to relieve pressure on Okinawa. And regarding the Osprey in particular, though it has suffered some famous accidents, as of August it had been statistically safer over its lifetime than the average Marine Corps aircraft. According to Marine Corps headquarters at the Pentagon, it has had a 20 percent lower rate of serious accidents per flight hour than the typical Marine helicopter or other aircraft -- though admittedly its two recent crashes merit further public discussion to relieve understandable anxieties on Okinawa.
All that said, the current relocation scheme appears stuck in the morass of Okinawan politics. This June, Governor Hirokazu Nakaima's ruling coalition failed to win a majority in the prefectural assembly election. That fact puts him on the defensive. Given the public discontent about the Osprey deployment, the governor has little choice but to push harder in resolving the Futenma issue -- without, alas, approving the Henoko site -- as well as opposing the Osprey deployment.