Whether this is of any comfort to the residents of Iwakuni is debatable. In spite of visits by representatives of the Yamaguchi prefectural government to the offices of Defence Minister Morimoto to voice the concern of citizens regarding the Ospreys' deployment (J), they received an answer to the effect that ""your concerns have been noted, however the Ospreys are going to be placed at Iwakuni, and so your co-operation and understanding are appreciated." This is no surprise, given it is the same initial response given to any prefectural government that objects to the deployment of US military equipment in its backyard (note the reaction of Kagoshima prefecture in 2010 when suggestions that Tokunoshima island play host to a US Marine base to replace Futenma were first raised (J). It may have been Kagoshima's good fortune that the PM at the time was Hatoyama Yukio, who folded faster than a novice Mahjong player in Macao). Yet while mainland prefectural governments have more political clout than their Okinawan counterparts (based on prefectural GDP and number of representatives), and might count on this to act in their favour vis-a-vis restricting flights by Osprey aircraft, the planned deployment of Ospreys at Futenma base in Okinawa is a different matter altogether.
Okinawa has long voiced its objection to the continued presence of US Marine forces on its soil, and the fact that the US is already planning to have Osprey aircraft operational in Okinawa by October (a fact that was revealed for the first time on Sunday) (J) has merely upped the ante. On Saturday last week the Okinawa prefectural government announced that it was sending Matakichi Susumu, the chief representative of the office of Governor Nakaima to Washington for direct talks with senior officials from the Pentagon and the Department of State (J). Given the determination of the US to push ahead with the deployment, and the willingness of the Noda government to agree to such measures (on condition that it is kept fully informed of developments re; the Osprey's safety record), Matakichi will probably not leave Washington with an outcome that will placate the growing anger at both the US and Tokyo that is growing in Naha.
Even members of the Noda government have hinted that the timing of the Osprey deployment could have been better managed (J). With the government still facing internal dissent over the consumption tax increase, popular anger for approving a re-start of the Oi nuclear reactor in Fukui prefecture, not to mention the continuing ramifications from the final report into the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant meltdown (J), and with pressure being exherted on the government by the Tokyo prefectural government and its plan to purchase the Senkaku Islands (therefore leading to an uncertain and potentially belligerent reaction from China, a situation not helped by Defence Minister Morimoto's comment that any wishing to land on the islands should be allowed to do so) (J), the Osprey deployment was just one problem the Noda government could have done without.
The Osprey deployment this week also made a meeting between US military attaches and representatives from the MOD and MOFA held on Thursday somewhat redundant (with one lower house member from Okinawa emphasising this point by questioning what both sides hoped to achieve by debating the safety of an aircraft that had already been deployed) (J), although for the purposes of placating a suspicious public it had some PR value. This was followed up on Wednesday with an announcement from Defence Minister Morimoto that he would establish an 'independent' Osprey evaluation committee (J). Just what terms the committee is acting under (other than receiving information on the two Osprey incidents that occured this year), and what would happen if it discovered technical or other faults in the Osprey, were not reported.
To add to the drama surrounding the Osprey, Foreign Minister Gemba declared on Tuesday that there would be a number of joint meetings between US and Japanese government representatives before any approval for the Ospreys to become operational is given (J). One would like to think that this would be conducted on an equal basis, but one has the suspicion that a timeline for operations has already been drawn up and will be enacted regardless of how many meetings are held. The fact that the second deployment of Ospreys will come two months after the initial deployment means the US wants this asset up and running as soon as possible (for what would be achieved by spending the time and money transporting the aircraft across the Pacific only for them to sit unused while the Noda government tries to placate local anger at their deployment, a process that could take months, if not years?)*, and is confident, nay certain, that the Noda government will acquiesce.
How so, one may ask? A clue to the answer to this question was revealed by Deputy PM Okada Katsuya on the 1st of July during a visit to Shunan City in Yamaguchi prefecture. While addressing media questions, Okada let slip that while the government might demand explanations from the US on the safety record of the Osprey, it could not halt the deployment of the Osprey to Japan as it had "no authority to do so" (J). This added another dimension to the question of the Osprey deployment. While media concerns over the past week have mostly focused on the Osprey's safety record, questions have been raised regarding Japanese sovereignty over its own airspace, and whether the Osprey constitutes a blatant example of the US forcing a decision on Japan that the Japanese government is in no position to question or refuse.
The Osprey deployment has also not gone unnoticed by Japan's regional neighbours, either. On Tuesday the Sankei Shimbun was reporting that according to an affiliate newspaper tied to China's People's Daily (who were apparently quoting from an unnamed former US government employee), the deployment of the Ospreys to Okinawa is ultimately aimed at reinforcing Japan's territorial claims to the Senkaku Island chain (J). This may be the case - the Ospreys are capable of flying both faster and higher than conventional helicopters and would be well-suited to the quick deployment of troops and equipment to the islands should China try to land its own troops on the islands to back its claims of sovereignty. The Ospreys remove the need for the US Marines in Okinawa to rely on US Navy vessels to transport conventional helicopters (CH-53E Sea Stallions, CH-46E Sea Knights) to within deployment range of the Senkaku Islands, therefore reducing the exposure of such vessels to possible interdiction from the Chinese.
While this may be of consolation to a government wanting to appear strong on issues of national sovereignty (at least in relation to China), it will not placate voter concern about the Osprey. Hence the degree of emphasis the Noda government has placed on demands for safety assurances from the US (despite evidence showing that, amongst the aerial assets within the US Marine arsenal, the Osprey has an exemplary safety record in regards to Class A accidents, although its record for B and C class accidents is less than stellar) (E). With the Ospreys already in Japan, all the Noda government can really do is accept the Osprey as a fait accompli and try to keep voter attention focused on aspects of the deployment that it can be seen to influence.
*Indeed, on Tuesday reports were already coming in that the US Air Force base at Iwakuni would begin prepping the Ospreys, running fuselage and engine checks and fuelling the aircraft ahead of eventual operations (J). The fact that this appears to have already been planned ahead of the meeting on Thursday suggests that the US is pushing ahead according to a prearranged schedule and that further meetings will will merely reconfirm the operating schedule for the Ospreys.