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Japan Restoration Party co-leader Toru Hashimoto proposed Thursday that the U.S. military consider conducting some training exercises for its MV-22 Osprey aircraft in Osaka Prefecture in a bid to reduce the burden on Okinawa Prefecture, home to the bulk of U.S. forces in Japan.
"It's important to study whether it is feasible" for some training to be conducted in Osaka Prefecture, Hashimoto told reporters after meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga at the premier's office.
"We don't know whether it is really possible...but the important thing is to get started on a feasibility study," Hashimoto said, adding a final judgment should be made by the Japanese government and the U.S. military.
Hashimoto, who is mayor of Osaka, suggested at the meeting that training exercises for the Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft deployed at a U.S. Marine base in Okinawa should be conducted outside of the prefecture for 120 days, and that Yao Airport, located southwest of Osaka, could host some of them.
After his meeting with Abe, Ichiro Matsui, the party's secretary general who is governor of Osaka Prefecture, said the prime minister told those attending the meeting that the sharing of Okinawa's burden by people on the mainland of Japan would be "natural."
The prime minister later instructed Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera to study whether it is realistic to move some training flights for the Ospreys to Osaka, but there is skepticism even within the government regarding the plan.
"We don't have a clear stance on this issue yet," Onodera told reporters. "We've just heard about the offer and it's quite natural that there are various opinions about it among local people. So we need more time," he said, adding Tokyo will consider various options.
Shigeru Ishiba, secretary general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, said, "Whether it is rationale from a military perspective needs to be considered" rather than just saying "Osaka will accept" some training.
Other proposals made by Hashimoto's party include revising the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement to enable Japan to exercise jurisdiction over U.S. military personnel when they commit crimes off duty, and to have the authority to keep such personnel in custody in conjunction with the United States.
The proposals were made as the party is attempting to limit the political repercussions of Hashimoto's recent remarks that Japan's system of wartime military brothels was necessary to maintain discipline, comments that have sparked anger in South Korea and elsewhere.
The outlook for implementing the proposals remains uncertain as Yao Mayor Seita Tanaka has expressed his objection.
For the city of Yao to accept Osprey training flights, Tanaka said local consent and assurances about the safety of the aircraft are necessary, adding it will be "difficult" to gain support from local residents.
Still, Tanaka noted the need for cooperation on national security and reducing the burden on Okinawa, leaving the door open for more dialogue. "If we hear from the government, we may have to consider it," the mayor added.
Hashimoto said gaining support for the party's plan from local residents should be left to Matsui and himself if the government decides to go ahead with the proposal.
But local residents are already voicing opposition and concern.
"I can't tolerate their moving forward without gaining consensus," said 55-year-old Hiroko Moroki, who runs an English conversation school near Yao Airport.
In Okinawa, Nago Mayor Susumu Inamine criticized the move as "irresponsible," because local consent had yet to be obtained in Osaka Prefecture.
Suga, the government's top spokesman, said Tokyo would "examine" the party's proposals and it had "a responsibility" to the people in Okinawa.
"We genuinely welcome the proposals as both Japanese and U.S. authorities are now considering whether it is possible for Ospreys to conduct flight training outside of Okinawa, and Japan as a whole needs to think about reducing the burden on Okinawa from hosting the bases," Suga said.
Twelve Ospreys have been deployed at the U.S. Marine Corps' Futenma Air Station in Okinawa since last year, despite strong local opposition and safety concerns after a series of accidents overseas.
The U.S. military has already started low-altitude training on the mainland, and another batch of twelve Ospreys is expected to arrive in Japan in the summer.