Tension Over Okinawa Bases Mars the Mourning of a Decorated U.S. Airman

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U.S. Navy photo

Mark “Smitty” Smith, center in black helmet, lowers two crewmen and a stretcher during a combat rescue mission in Afghanistan last year. Smith was killed in a training accident in Okinawa, Japan, last week

If you can find a quicker way to alienate your friends and allies than berating them for crashing a rescue helicopter that took part in a massive earthquake-and-tsunami relief operation just two years ago; and in which a well-liked and highly respected crewman (a war hero, in fact) was killed, leaving behind a wife and two young daughters and a host of grieving friends; and all the while expressing little regard for the loss of life or the risks taken — well, the Japanese government may want to hear from you.

The U.S. Air Force held a somber memorial service this week for Technical Sergeant Mark Smith, who was killed in the Aug. 5 crash of a Pave Hawk search-and-rescue helicopter. Three other crewmen were injured in the accident, which took place during a training mission on the island of Okinawa.

The cause of the accident is under investigation and training flights have been suspended. The helicopter went down in rugged terrain inside a Marine Corps training range. No Japanese citizens were injured, though smoke from the crash was visible from a nearby town.

(MORE: As Tokyo Cozies Up to Washington, Tensions Flare Over U.S. Military in Okinawa)

It’s understandable the crash would cause concern. Okinawa is a small island, densely populated and packed with U.S. bases. Helicopters and warplanes crisscross the island and operate close offshore. Local residents have been fighting the recent deployment of Marine Corps V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, which have a spotty safety record, and want the crowded Futenma air base moved off the island.

But the wreckage of the Pave Hawk had barely cooled before Japanese officials were lashing the U.S. military — and by extension, the crew.

Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima said the crash had “shocked” local residents and angrily demanded that U.S. authorities explain the cause and take measures to prevent it from happening again.

“The insecure feelings of the people of Okinawa prefecture are growing all the stronger. Aircraft could crash onto private residences,” Nakaima said.

Deputy Foreign Minister Shinsuke Sugiyama met with State Department officials in Washington and afterward said he had “lodged a strong protest” over the accident — although exactly what he was protesting was unclear.

Even Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who says he wants to strengthen the U.S.-Japan security alliance, lectured the Americans: “It is important that the safety of local people comes first. We would like to ask the U.S. side to give utmost consideration to safety.”

(MORE: U.S. Troops in Japan Told to Put a Cork in It)

Lost in the outrage was any mention that an airman had died in the accident and that three others were injured.

“I was appalled by the total absence of any expression of condolence in public pronouncements and media coverage immediately following the accident,” says one U.S. official in Japan.

He says it was a “typical” post-mishap reaction by Japanese government officials, meant to keep public emotions in check.

“That means pointing an angry and demanding finger at the U.S. government and military for endangering, scaring or disturbing Japanese citizens,” he says. “We investigate these things automatically, professionally and thoroughly, and the Japanese government knows it. But they feel compelled by their political culture to poke the U.S. in the chest about it.”

Making matters worse, Smith was a well-regarded veteran of two deployments to Afghanistan. A dramatic photo of Smith and the crew of his Pave Hawk helicopter rescuing a wounded soldier during a combat mission became a viral hit in the military community; Smith and his crew were later decorated for that mission.

Of more direct relevance in Japan, Smith’s unit, the 33rd Rescue Squadron, based at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, spent a month flying search-and-rescue missions in the immediate aftermath of the devastating March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan. The unit is credited with saving at least one life, delivering tons of food and supplies, and evacuating sick and injured people. Twice the unit was driven back while attempting to conduct close reconnaissance of the stricken nuclear power plant in Fukushima — once by dangerous winter weather, and the other by high radiation.

The timing may have contributed to the official reaction. The Abe administration is trying to ease through — or push through, depending on one’s perspective — a final deal on relocating the Futenma air base to another location on Okinawa. That’s something local officials have long opposed, and last week’s crash won’t make things easier.

(MORE: Why Okinawa Won’t Be Celebrating if 4,700 U.S. Marines Move to Guam)

“The government is really afraid that this accident will make replacing the Futenma facility and basing the Osprey on Okinawa even harder, so they sought to allay concerns among the locals,” says Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University in Tokyo.

Still, if the reaction by Japanese leaders has seemed hardheaded, that of ordinary citizens has been much different.

A Facebook page was set up by Japanese supporters of the U.S. military and received hundreds of posts expressing sympathy and condolences. The e-mail account of the Kadena Air Base’s public-affairs office was inundated with messages of support, and thousands of Twitter messages were sent to U.S. forces throughout Japan, says Cody Chiles, a Kadena spokesman.

In one representative post, Okinawa resident Satomi Te wrote, “For you who died at such a young age in the line of duty, I offer my condolences, and to your family. Thank you again for your rigorous training every day, and for being at the Great East Japan Earthquake.”

Perhaps the message got through. Over the weekend, Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera appeared on Japanese television to point out that a member of the U.S. military — Japan’s friend and ally for more than six decades — had lost his life far from home and deserved the condolences of the Japanese people.

Training flights for the 33rd Rescue Squadron resume today.

MORE: The Identity Crisis That Lurks Behind Japan’s Right-Wing Rhetoric