U.S. Military Aircraft Crashes Off Japanese Island, Prompting A Return To The Okinawa Question

U.S. military aircraft AV8B Harrier II has crashed off the Japanese island of Okinawa. The crash of the ground attack fighter jet has prompted fresh concerns over U.S. presence in the southernmost prefecture of Japan.

Okinawa, once under U.S. control, returned to Japanese rule in 1972. The U.S. Army has a controversial military base at Okinawa, from which, according to reports by local media, the military aircraft took off and plunged into the sea shortly afterwards.

There have been no reports of casualty or injuries yet. According to the CNN report of the crash, the pilot managed to eject and escape the plunging aircraft and has been rescued by the Air Force.

The U.S. military aircraft took off from the Kadena U.S. Air Base in Okinawa in what was a routine mission involving just the lone pilot and crashed 95 miles off Hedo Cape, according to a local coast guard official, says the CNN report. The report also quotes the spokesman for the Third Marine Expeditionary Force, Eric Flanagan.

“The cause of the incident is under investigation. From the US Marine Corps perspective, the most important part is that the pilot ejected safely and is now safe on deck back in Okinawa.”

In the photograph at the top of the page, U.S. Marines from the Third Marine Expeditionary Force that Flanagan represents are seen participating in the U.S. and South Korean Marines joint landing operation at Pohang seashore on March 12, 2016, in South Korea. The battalion was deployed from Okinawa, Japan, and contributed in one of the largest exercises between the two countries to date. The image has been used for representative purposes only.

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U.S. Marines deployed from Okinawa, Japan participate in the U.S. and South Korean Marines joint landing operation at Pohang seashore [Image by Woohae Cho/Getty Images]

In its report on the crash, the International Business Times noted that Japan’s defense ministry has confirmed the crash.

However, even though the crash appears to have been minimally fatal, it once again draws attention to the U.S. military base at Okinawa. According to the IBT report, Okinawa is home to about 50,000 U.S. nationals, most of whom are military personnel who are rather unwelcome in the area.

While Okinawa has acted as the U.S.’s watchtower over the Pacific Ocean, its native residents have grown increasingly wary of U.S. presence on the island.

In 1996, the rape of a 12-year-old Okinawan girl by three members of the U.S. military forces led to the formation of bristling resentment of the local population towards the U.S. army men.

But underlying resentment gave way to full-blown protests attended by thousands in the light of the murder of another young Japanese woman this year.

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Protesters gather in front of the gate at the U.S. military base Camp Hansen to protest the rape of a local woman in May allegedly by a U.S. Marine June 17, 2003 on the island of Okinawa, Japan. The Marine, Lance Cpl. Jose Torres, is accused of punching the 19-year-old woman in the face and raping her. [Image by Getty Images]

In June of 2016, the arrest of Kenneth Franklin Shinzato, a 32-year-old U.S. civilian contract worker who was a former Marine living at Okinawa’s Kadena U.S. Air Base (from where the crashed military aircraft took off), prompted widespread outbursts of anger among those living on the island. Shinzato was suspected of murdering a 20-year-old Japanese woman and dumping her corpse.

According to another IBT report in August of 2016, the U.S. will return over 15 square miles of occupied land in Okinawa to Japan later this year.

This amounts to 17 percent of the total U.S. occupied and controlled area in Okinawa, making the return the largest since 1972. The island areas that will constitute the return is territory that belonged to Camp Gonsalves, where the Marine Corps did their jungle training.

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U.S. Marines deployed from Okinawa, Japan participate in the U.S. and South Korean Marines joint landing operation at Pohang seashore [Image by Woohae Cho/Getty Images]

The return had been agreed upon almost 20 years ago, but the process, which depended on the construction of helipads in the area, had been delayed until this year. The report quotes the U.S. military commander on the island, Lt. Gen. Lawrence D. Nicholson, from his press release.

“Our capabilities to operate in the Pacific will remain consistent, even within a smaller space….We are respectful of the feelings of Okinawans that our footprint must be reduced. This decreased training area on Okinawa will not deteriorate our commitment or our ability towards working with the Government of Japan and our partners in the Japan Self Defense Force in mutual defense of this country.”

The U.S. military aircraft crash is one in a long series of incidents involving American fighter jets, reports Japan Times. The Harrier jets, such as the one that crashed most recently, have had no fewer than 18 accidents since 1972.

The report also quotes the governor of Okinawa, Takeshi Onaga, who fears the repercussions of the crash and has requested the U.S. military to suspend operations until the cause of the crash is investigated in depth.

“This incident will cause great fear among citizens and I express my deepest regret.”

[Featured Image by Woohae Cho/Getty Images]