Japan, U.S. officials discuss preventive steps after helicopter crash

Japanese and U.S. government officials met Thursday in Tokyo to discuss steps to prevent a recurrence of the fatal crash of an HH-60 helicopter in Okinawa that forced the U.S. military to suspend flights by other choppers of the same type.

The U.S. delegation was led by Peter Lavoy, acting assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs, while Koji Tomita, head of the North American Affairs Bureau in Japan's Foreign Ministry, and Hideshi Tokuchi, director general of the Defense Ministry's Policy Bureau, represented the Japanese side.

"We had a very good meeting today," Lavoy told reporters after the meeting but did not elaborate.

At the closed-door meeting, officials from Japan's foreign and defense ministries are believed to have asked the U.S. side to put safety first as the accident took place near a residential area.

The meeting at the director-general level came as Tokyo urged Washington to share information about why the crash happened, and to put preventive measures in place amid local concerns about U.S. military operations in Okinawa, home to the bulk of U.S. bases.

"We will continue to ask the U.S. side to place priority on safety, and reduce base-hosting burdens on Okinawa," Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said at a press conference before the meeting.

The U.S. military has been looking into the case and told the Defense Ministry it will question the surviving three crew members of the HH-60 helicopter about the situation leading to the crash.

Tokyo and Washington had originally planned to hold a regular meeting of the U.S.-Japan Joint Committee, a framework to discuss issues related to U.S. bases in Japan.

But they apparently expanded it to include more officials like Lavoy, given the gravity of the accident, before the joint committee takes up the issue.

Both sides are also trying to keep anti-base sentiment from growing further at a time when Tokyo is waiting for approval from Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima of an application to reclaim land for relocating the Futenma Air Station in Ginowan.

Coming at a sensitive time, the crash has fueled local opposition to the deployment of U.S. military MV-22 Osprey transport aircraft in Okinawa, which will replace aging CH-46 helicopters. The U.S. military postponed the transfer of the remaining 10 Ospreys from Iwakuni in Yamaguchi Prefecture to Okinawa.

Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said Thursday that safety measures should be put in place before flights of the HH-60 helicopters resume, adding that the deployment of the Ospreys will likely be postponed for a while.