The U.S. military on Tuesday decided to suspend flights by HH-60 helicopters at Japan's request until the cause of the crash of one of the choppers in Okinawa the previous day has been determined.
After attending a ceremony Tuesday to mark the 68th anniversary of the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said safety should not be compromised.
"It is important that the safety of local people comes first. We would like to ask the U.S. side to give utmost consideration to safety," the prime minister told a press conference in the western Japan city.
To ease concern about U.S. military operations, Japanese and U.S. officials are expected to hold a joint committee meeting on Thursday to share information about the accident and discuss preventive measures, Japanese government officials said.
The flying activities of the rescue squadron have been suspended, the 18th Wing Public Affairs of the U.S. Kadena Air Base said Tuesday, adding it is not yet known when the rescue squadron will resume flying.
An HH-60 rescue helicopter crashed Monday in a mountainous area within the premises of a U.S. military base in Okinawa Prefecture, about 2 kilometers away from the nearest residential area.
The Defense Ministry said three of the four crew members had been confirmed safe without giving more details. The Kadena base said Tuesday human remains were discovered at the crash site and have yet to be identified.
In Tokyo, Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima met separately with the foreign and defense ministers as well as Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, calling for a thorough investigation into the accident.
Nakaima said people in Okinawa would inevitably associate the accident with the U.S. military's Osprey tilt-rotor transport aircraft, which the U.S. military started deploying in Okinawa last year to replace aging CH-46 helicopters.
"There are many bases in Okinawa near densely populated areas. We want the government to ask the U.S side to provide information about why the crash happened and suspend flights until measures are taken to prevent a recurrence," Nakaima told Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera.
Onodera said he discussed the issue with U.S. Ambassador to Japan John Roos during the day and the government is still gathering information.
"We understand that there are various concerns among the people of Okinawa, including over the deployment of the Osprey. We asked (the U.S. side) to deal with the latest accident in a manner that addresses such local concerns," Onodera said.
The accident prompted the U.S. military to put off the transfer of additional MV-22 Osprey aircraft from the Iwakuni base in Yamaguchi Prefecture to the U.S. Marine Corps' Futenma Air Station in Okinawa, home to the bulk of U.S. forces in Japan.
The Japanese government is apparently concerned that the accident will further stir local opposition to the long-standing and thorny issue of relocating the Futenma base in the city of Ginowan within the prefecture.
Suga, Japan's top government spokesman, said Tokyo made a request to the United States to put off the deployment of the 10 remaining Ospreys "to take heed of local concerns," but repeated that the aircraft are vital for Japan's security.
The current relocation plan for the Futenma air station is "the only viable solution" for reducing the base-hosting burden on Okinawa and maintaining U.S. deterrence at the same time, Suga said.
Tokyo has been waiting for Nakaima to make a decision on whether to accept an application to reclaim land off the coast of the city of Nago for the Futenma relocation, in line with an agreement reached between the United States and Japan.
With memories fresh of past accidents involving U.S. military aircraft since Okinawa's reversion to Japan, many people in Okinawa have long sought to have the base moved out of the prefecture.