An Osprey aircraft lands on flight deck of the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard operating in the South China Sea. Photo: Reuters
An Osprey aircraft lands on flight deck of the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard operating in the South China Sea. Photo: Reuters

A US Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey crashed during an exercise in Australia last week and three American marines died. Afterward, the Japanese government of Japan requested that the Americans stop flying the Osprey in Japan. That response is as predictable as it is tone-deaf – considering the only thing standing between China “teaching Japan a lesson” and also seizing Japanese territory is the United States, and US forces in particular.

Rather than the usual apologies and walking on eggshells after training accidents, the US response to this Japanese demand needs to be incandescent. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Adviser H R McMaster need to summon their Japanese counterparts and scorch them – both privately and publicly. And President Donald Trump should tweet: “If Japan wants Americans to die for it, this must stop. Show some appreciation.”

The new US ambassador to Japan, William Hagerty, will be arriving in Tokyo this month. One imagines he will be told – by both Japanese and Americans – just to understand the Shinzo Abe administration’s “difficult position”. Yet it’s unclear who exactly Tokyo has to placate. The Asahi Shinbun editorial board? Or a noisy opposition on Okinawa?  If a US$3 billion annual bribe from the Japanese central government to the Okinawa prefectural government doesn’t work, grounding the Osprey isn’t likely to placate Okinawa either.

Ironically, when defense matters are explained to them, the Japanese public writ large understand the US military role and don’t give two hoots about the Osprey – or even support it. Japan’s political and bureaucratic class seems less intelligent, on the whole. But, fearing the Japanese might get angry, the US government has never pushed its interests as it should. And with rare exceptions, such as historian Dr Robert Eldridge’s work on Okinawa and the Japanese mainland, neither has the US military. 

One notes that newly installed Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera knows the Osprey well – having received a special briefing and familiarization tour of the aircraft five years ago – with the same squadron that experienced the mishap in Australia – just before taking over his first posting as defense minister.

Flying helicopters anywhere, and particularly on and off ships, is a dangerous business. Indeed, one marvels that these accidents don’t happen daily. This training is an essential part of military preparedness, and accidents are part and parcel of the business – as they are with all aviation. 

For some disconcerting reading, read up on accidents involving commercial Boeing 737s worldwide over the last few decades. All Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines fly 737s. Perhaps ground them until they can guarantee accidents will never happen – or at least prohibit them flying to Okinawa?

It has been many decades now, and we still hear this sort of rote complaint from the Japanese government whenever the inevitable training accidents occur. Do the Japanese not understand how this churlish whining sounds to Americans?

Maybe in the rarified world of foreign affairs and defense policy, the aforementioned approach to dealing with Japan lacks nuance. But in the pedestrian world of American families offering up their young men and women to die for Japan, nuance may be something of a luxury.

The new ambassador to Japan should resist calls to apologize and placate the Japanese over the Osprey. Instead, he might ask for an apology. Three Americans die training to defend Japan and Japanese interests, and not a peep of concern from Japanese leadership, much less any thanks for the sacrifice from the other half of America’s most important bilateral relationship – bar none. 

The Japanese government responded similarly last December when a Marine Corps Osprey made a water landing off Okinawa. Indeed, the Japanese media whined when Lieutenant-General Larry Nicholson, the commander of III Marine Expeditionary Force, declined to prostrate himself and had the temerity to praise the pilot for his efforts to avoid harm to civilians while risking his own life and those of his crew.

Managers of the US-Japan alliance still claim the relationship has never been stronger and that great progress is being made. Tokyo’s response to this latest accident suggests otherwise. This is a collective long-term failure to perform by too many people.

The  Japanese government needs to think through what it gets from the US military presence – and the Americans need to help them understand, in no uncertain terms. The fact that a peacetime training accident that costs American lives provokes Japanese complaints instead of sympathy, not to mention gratitude, will not be lost on the American public when Japan asks for help against China or North Korea. 

And China’s lobbyists in Washington will be glad to remind them. 

Grant Newsham is a retired US Marine Corps officer and a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies. He was the first USMC liaison officer to the Japan Self-Defense Forces – and would not normally be mistaken for a “Japan Basher”.

Grant Newsham

Grant Newsham is a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies in Tokyo with more than 20 years' experience in Japan and elsewhere in Asia as a US diplomat, business executive, and US Marine Corps officer.

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