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Ready or not, Japan wants to buy the Pentagon’s controversial Osprey aircraft

Gen. John M. Paxton Jr., assistant commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, and Kenichiro Sasae, Japanese ambassador to the United States, watch outside the Pentagon on Thursday as Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera departs in a Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey. (Cpl. Tia Dufour/U.S. Marine Corps)
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Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera arrived at the Pentagon on Thursday in a gleaming MV-22 Osprey, the revolutionary, though controversial, tilt-rotor aircraft that can take off like a helicopter but fly like an airplane.

The point was plain — and plane. If I’m riding in it, Onodera seemed to say, it’s safe.

The visual was relevant because Japan wants to buy the aircraft as it expands its military in the face of a rising China. Japanese officials said Thursday that they would budget money to buy them in the fiscal 2015 budget. By 2018, Tokyo wants 17 of them, offering them more speed and range than traditional helicopters.

The Osprey’s history of deadly crashes has complicated matters in Japan, however. The Marine Corps first deployed the aircraft there in 2012 amid protests by tens of thousands of people, and concerns remain. Even a six-inch-long metal rod falling off an Osprey into the ocean near Okinawa and doing no harm in June received media attention, given the circumstances.

The Osprey purchases did not come up during a news conference Friday at the Pentagon with Onodera and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. But it’s part of a broader shift in Japanese defense strategy toward “collective self-defense” after decades of “internal self-defense.” In addition to the Ospreys, Japan plans to buy at least 42 F-35A Joint Strike Fighter jets to replace its decades-old F-4EJ Kai Phantoms, several Global Hawk surveillance drones and other equipment.

It’s the Ospreys, though, that seem to get the bulk of the attention. And that’s in part because of Japan’s history with other American aircraft. Many are still upset by an Aug. 13, 2004, CH-53D helicopter crash on an occupied building at Okinawa International University in which U.S. Marines cordoned off Japanese authorities for seven days. No civilians were injured in the crash, but rallies against U.S. aviation have continued there ever since, including a “die-in” protest last summer on its ninth anniversary.

The Osprey, meanwhile, has become a common sight in the U.S. military. It was deployed to Iraq from 2007 to 2009, and has been in Afghanistan since. It also has been added to President Obama’s fleet of aircraft, Marine Corps Helicopter Squadron One, although it is used to fly support missions, not the president.

Air Force Special Operations Command also flies a variant of the Osprey, the CV-22, and the Navy signed a $6.5 billion deal in June with the Osprey’s makers, Textron Inc.’s Bell Helicopter and Boeing Co., to buy 99 of the aircraft.