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US general denies agreeing with Japanese defense minister on chopper grounding

Japan Self-Defense Force personnel, police, and others conduct an inspection on Oct. 13, 2017, of the U.S. chopper that crash-landed on private land in the Takae district of the Okinawa Prefecture town of Higashi two days earlier. (Mainichi)

Maj. Gen. Charles Chiarotti, deputy commander of the United States Forces Japan, did not agree to indefinitely ground the U.S. military's CH-53E helicopters following a crash-landing in Okinawa on Oct. 11, though he understood Japan's request to do so, a spokesperson for the major general has told the Mainichi Shimbun.

The comment came after Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera told reporters on Oct. 13 that he had obtained Chiarotti's agreement to indefinitely ground the large transport choppers.

A CH-53E helicopter stationed at the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in the southern Okinawa prefectural city of Ginowan crash-landed and went up in flames on private land in the Takae district of the northern Okinawa Prefecture village of Higashi on Oct. 11.

Onodera told reporters at the Ministry of Defense on Oct. 13 that he had lodged a strong complaint with Chiarotti when they met the previous day, saying it was "inappropriate to set a date for when the grounding (of the same type of helicopter) would be lifted." Nevertheless, dissatisfaction with the government's handling of the accident has been growing in Okinawa Prefecture, and the ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and Komeito are concerned this discontent could negatively affect the results of the ruling parties in the House of Representatives election on Oct. 22.

Senior U.S. military officials in Okinawa Prefecture on Oct. 12 ordered the "96-hour (4-day) grounding" of the chopper, and it remains to be seen whether the deadline will be extended in response to Japan's demands. If the U.S. military resumes operation of CH-53E flights before election day, the move is certain to have some impact on the election results.

The four single-seat electoral districts in Okinawa Prefecture are being contested by the "all-Okinawa" bloc that supports Gov. Takeshi Onaga, who stands against the relocation of Air Station Futenma to Henoko, in the northern Okinawa Prefecture city of Nago. The opposing bloc consists of LDP candidates who approve of the relocation plans.

On Oct. 12, Onaga referenced Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's dubbing of the latest dissolution of the lower house and snap general election as "one for overcoming national crises," when he said, "It is a national crisis that the state is forcing the current situation onto Okinawa." A day earlier, Onaga also said, "It is important for the people who are calling for the reduction of accidents resulting from the very fact that U.S. military bases are located here to be elected to the lower house."

"The (accident) happened at the worst possible time," said a senior official from the LDP Okinawa Prefectural Chapter. "This is definitely going to affect the election." LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai also seemed on edge when he said, "We will keep a close eye on this."

After receiving a demand for an indefinite grounding of the CH-53E from Okinawa Vice Gov. Moritake Tomigawa on Oct. 13, Parliamentary Secretary of Defense Tatsuo Fukuda said, "We will proceed under the major premise that unless the people of Okinawa Prefecture can feel at ease, neither the SDF nor the U.S. military can carry out their activities."

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