The U.S. military on Tuesday unloaded 12 MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft at its Iwakuni base in western Japan, paving the way for their deployment next month in Okinawa, where opposition to their use remains strong due to safety concerns.
The Ospreys, which can take off and land like a helicopter and fly like an airplane, will undergo maintenance and test flights for about a week before they leave in early August for the U.S. Marine Corps' Futenma Air Station in Okinawa, where another 12 have already been deployed, Japan's Defense Ministry said.
After a two-week trip from San Diego, a ship carrying the 12 Ospreys, the second batch for deployment in Japan following the first dozen last summer, arrived around 7:15 a.m. Tuesday at the U.S. Marine Corps' Air Station Iwakuni in Yamaguchi Prefecture, and all of the Ospreys were unloaded by 5 p.m.
The arrival of the aircraft will enable the U.S. military to deploy a total of 24 Ospreys to replace aging CH-46 helicopters in Okinawa, which hosts the bulk of U.S. military forces in Japan.
Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima has repeatedly called for the cancellation of the deployment in the southern island prefecture due to the aircraft's history of crashes.
On Tuesday, civic group members and local residents took to the streets and staged rallies around the Iwakuni base, while local leaders sought information about the deployment.
"The responsibility for the operations of the Osprey lies with the central government," Iwakuni Mayor Yoshihiko Fukuda told reporters while watching the Ospreys being unloaded inside the base.
The U.S. military allowed reporters to enter the Iwakuni base to see the offloading process, apparently taking heed of local concerns about the aircraft, which the United States says will contribute to security in the Asia-Pacific region.
In Okinawa, there is strong opposition to the deployment as local people have long wanted the Futenma air base to be relocated out of the prefecture.
Around 20 residents gathered in the early hours of Tuesday, shouting "No Ospreys" in front of a gate now surrounded by new fences that the Japanese Defense Ministry built at the request of the U.S. military.
"We cannot accept any more burdens. It is too much for local people to bear," Atsushi Sakima, mayor of Ginowan, where the air station is located, told reporters.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga repeated that the government will work closely with Washington to ensure safe operations, acknowledging the concerns of people in Okinawa.
"We will hold necessary consultations with the U.S. side so they carry out operations properly" in accordance with a bilateral agreement on Osprey operations, Suga said in Tokyo.
Still, the government's top spokesman said Japan has not heard about the U.S. military's plan to deploy the CV-22 Osprey, an air force variant of the MV-22 Osprey, a day after Gen. Herbert Carlisle, commander of the U.S. Pacific Air Forces, indicated that the Yokota Air Base in Tokyo is a potential site for hosting the planes besides the Kadena base in Okinawa.
Amid China's military buildup and greater assertiveness in the East China Sea, the Defense Ministry proposed last week that Japan strengthen the marine functions of the Self-Defense Forces and prepare troops for quick dispatch to remote islands such as the Senkakus, which are at the heart of heightened tensions between Tokyo and Beijing.
The introduction of the MV-22 Osprey has been seen as an option in this regard, with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, headed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, calling on the government to consider it.
The United States announced a plan last year to deploy a total of 24 MV-22 Ospreys in Okinawa by 2014 despite opposition from local people in Yamaguchi and Okinawa after accidents in Morocco and Florida, which were later blamed on human error.
Japan gave the go-ahead last September for test flights of the first 12 Ospreys that arrived at the Iwakuni base last July, as Tokyo and Washington agreed on a set of measures to ensure safe operations by putting restrictions in place for low-altitude flights.
The Ospreys began low-altitude and nighttime flights over mainland Japan in March, and Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto has floated the idea of an airport near the city hosting part of the Osprey flight training.
The aircraft, however, have been seen flying in vertical take-off and landing mode over urban areas in Okinawa, prompting people in Okinawa to claim it was a violation of the bilateral agreement.
The agreement stipulates that flights in that mode should be limited to within the boundaries of U.S. military facilities and areas "except as operationally necessary."