TOKYO - A shipload of the U.S. military's latest transport aircraft arrived in Japan on Monday amid protests over safety issues that have aggravated longstanding grassroots concern over the presence of American bases in the country.
Workers began unloading and assembling the 12 MV-22 Osprey aircraft in the city of Iwakuni soon after the ship arrived. The U.S. plans to deploy the tilt-rotor aircraft to Okinawa to replace older CH-46 helicopters that are already there.
The Osprey deployment has become the latest rallying point for base opponents and a serious headache for officials in Tokyo and Washington hoping to calm anti-base sentiment.
Although the Ospreys will only be in Iwakuni briefly, opposition there has been unusually strong, with both the mayor and the governor saying they do not support even temporarily hosting the aircraft. Opposition to the large military presence on Okinawa is deep-rooted, and protesters on Monday held a sit-in outside the base where the Ospreys are to be sent.
Residents and local leaders in Iwakuni and on Okinawa have demanded the plan be scrapped because they say the planes are not safe. Such concerns boiled over after Osprey crashes in Morocco in April and in Florida last month.
Hundreds of protesters turned out to demonstrate against the arrival, some of them aboard small boats.
The planes have been used extensively in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the United States says they have a solid record. The Osprey can fly like an airplane and has tilting rotors that allow it to take off and land like a helicopter. It can fly much faster and carry bigger loads than the CH-46, which it is replacing worldwide.
"Deployment of these aircraft in Japan is a vital component in fulfilling the United States' commitment to provide for the defense of Japan and to help maintain peace and security in the Asia-Pacific region," the U.S. Embassy said in a statement Monday.
The United States has about 19,000 Marines on Okinawa, which also hosts a large U.S. air base. More than half of the roughly 50,000 U.S. troops stationed throughout Japan are based on Okinawa.
To ease tensions, Tokyo and Washington recently agreed to move about 9,000 Marines off Okinawa, but that has been widely criticized on Okinawa because a firm date for the move has not been set.
Okinawans are also angry that the Ospreys will be deployed to Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, which the two countries decided to close more than a decade ago. The base has remained in operation because a replacement site hasn't been readied.
The Futenma base is located in a heavily populated area, and residents have long protested against the noise, the potential for accidents and base-related crime. A CH-53 helicopter from Futenma crashed into a nearby university building in 2004, causing a huge anti-base uproar, although there were no civilian injuries and the crew survived.