Debarring Questions Over Futenma Airbase
Nov. 03, 2013
Just over nine years ago, after a US military heavy-lift helicopter crashed into the middle of our university campus1 – only a slightly more muscular stone’s-throw from the US Marine Corps’ Futenma base than I might be relied on to manage - it was difficult to find anyone on the other side of the fence who could talk in any meaningful way about preventing the same thing happening again.
Okinawa International University, August 13, 2004. Photo courtesy of Okinawa International University
I even began developing the impression that no one associated with the US military really cared about my colleagues’ or my students’ wellbeing, especially after I heard an admittedly second-hand remark from the nearby Kadena Air Base (the largest and most intrusive US base in Okinawa), that went something along the lines of, “What are these Okinawans complaining about? Don’t they know we’re here to protect them?”
More clearly attributable comments from further up the chain of command were no more reassuring. According to the BBC, a year before the crash, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had apparently called Futenma, “the world’s most dangerous base.”2
On the same day the helicopter crash seemed to spectacularly endorse Rumsfeld’s view, Secretary of State Colin Powell sought to reassure people here by claiming that, “We do everything we can … to make sure our equipment is safe and our helicopters are safe and well-maintained and our pilots are well trained.”3
Needless to say, “everything we can” meant anything other than doing the obvious: shutting down the base immediately without any further discussion.
When I tried to talk to Marine Corps Community Relations during the period immediately following the crash, I was told that they didn’t accept calls from the public, but would only communicate with Okinawa’s elected representatives, who, just three years earlier, had been described by the US military’s own supreme commander as, “all nuts and a bunch of wimps.”4
My frustration was only slightly alleviated when the US military relented somewhat and allowed me to talk to Kaori Martinez, the Marine Corps Community Relations Officer with whom I eventually managed to have a number of polite conversations.
The most recent of these was just a few months ago, when she informed me, with typical good-humour, that I was “debarred” from the March 3, 2013 Osprey “Family Day,” an event organised to enlist military friendly Okinawan families into a cast of extras recruited to act out the fiction that the aircraft poses no danger to the almost 100,000 of us living and working along the crash-path of what US Marines themselves have christened the “The Widow Maker.”
Mine was not the most irrational – or even disturbing – “debarment” we had talked about. In a conversation three years earlier, we had discussed the anxieties of some of our international students, who had their identity documents and faces photographed before being inexplicably turned away from the annual Futenma Flightline Fair.5 They now understandably worry about how this information could be misused to debar them from entering the United States.
As for the event from which I was “debarred,” the Japan Update reported6 that, “Families participating [were to be] given a brief on the MV-22 Osprey’s capabilities, a tour of the aircraft and the opportunity to ask questions to Osprey pilots and other subject matter experts.”
Ospreys taking off from the Futenma base. Photo taken from Peter Simpson’s office.
Having been denied the opportunity to raise what I consider to be vitally important public safety questions, both as a resident of Ginowan City and a teacher in the likely flight-path of a future crash, I would like to know how the assembled pilots and experts would have responded to the following questions or comments:
Elsewhere, two Osprey crashes and a fire11 have already occurred in the year since the US began deploying the aircraft in Okinawa, as well as the fatal crash of another helicopter12 here just two months ago. In these circumstances, shouldn’t the need to provide answers to questions like these be treated as a matter of life and death?
Peter Simpson teaches at Okinawa International University and lives and works next to the US Marine Corps Futenma air base, located in the center of Ginowan City (pop.95,000). He is co-editor of Under Occupation: Resistance and Struggle in a Militarised Asia-Pacific (2013). In this article, he draws attention to the anguish and outrage inflicted on the municipality by the forced deployment of the Osprey, a hybrid aircraft about which many safety questions appear to remain unanswered.
Recommended Citation: Peter Simpson, "Debarring Questions Over Futenma Airbase", The Asia-Pacific Journal, November 2, 2013.
Chie MIYAGIDear Peter, Thank you for your courage and strong will to protect residents from threats Thank you for asking questions on behalf of people who live next to bases.
Peter SimpsonPredictably, the US military is using the catastrophe in the Philippines for Osprey PR purposes. One of the most recent puff pieces includes photos of a successful in-flight refueling on the way to the disaster zone. For me this just raises questions that remain unanswered about the range of the aircraft. http://www.g2mil.com/V-22shock.htm