Photo/IllutrationAkita Governor Norihisa Satake, second from right, and Akita Mayor Motomu Hozumi, right, listen to the Defense Ministry’s presentation on the Aegis Ashore’s deployment plan at the Akita prefectural government office in Akita on May 27. (Shigetaka Kodama)

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AKITA--A high-ranking Defense Ministry official on May 27 visited Akita to emphasize the safety of the proposed deployment of the controversial Aegis Ashore missile defense system here, but local officials remain unconvinced.

Akita is one of two candidate sites for the deployment, which local residents fear could adversely affect their health and have an environmental impact, as well as put their communities in the crosshairs.

“We can safely deploy and operate the Aegis Ashore system,” said Kenji Harada, the senior vice defense minister, during a meeting with Akita Governor Norihisa Satake and other officials at the Akita prefectural government office.

“Radar waves from the Aegis Ashore system have no effect on local residents’ bodies,” Harada added, in an effort to sway local opponents and push the deployment plan forward.

After listening to the ministry’s presentation, Satake said, "We will consider it."

Satake, who did not mention the pros and cons of the deployment plan, added, “It is likely that we will make various demands and proposals, so please be prepared.”

Akita Mayor Motomu Hozumi, who also attended the meeting, said, “We need time to examine it.”

Harada visited Yamaguchi Prefecture on May 28, another prefecture that hosts a Ground Self-Defense Force exercise area that is a candidate site for the missile defense system, to lobby local officials.

Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya has also expressed willingness to visit the areas to directly address the safety concerns.

But prospects for these officials to obtain consent from local residents remain bleak.

Masashi Sasaki, 69, president of the Araya-Katsuhira district promotion association in Akita, disagreed with the ministry’s assessment.

“I can’t allow myself to accept it," Sasaki said. "Absolutely not.”

The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe decided in December 2017 to deploy the pricey system in fiscal 2023 in eastern and western Japan to defend the entire Japanese archipelago against ballistic missile attacks, most likely from North Korea.

The Defense Ministry in June 2018 named the GSDF’s Araya exercise area in Akita city and Mutsumi exercise area in Hagi, Yamaguchi Prefecture, as candidate sites for deployment of the missile tracking and interception system.

Local residents immediately raised concerns about electromagnetic waves emitted by radar, a key component of the Aegis Ashore system, which they fear could negatively impact their health. They are also worried that the presence of such a system could make the area a potential target of a missile attack.

In response, the ministry has conducted research on the defense system’s impact on human health and other issues since October.

Harada’s visit to the two prefectures was arranged to explain the findings of the research.

According to the ministry, materials that can absorb radio waves will be used to construct barriers that will be built around the radar to further increase safety.

The system will have no impact on passenger airplanes landing at and departing from Akita Airport and helicopters used for disaster safety and medical emergencies, according to the ministry.

The ministry plans to deploy 250 SDF members to the station, 50 more than its initial plan.

“I promise to protect local residents at all costs,” Harada said at the meeting.

Given the recent changes in the military situation involving North Korea, however, local communities may not be fully persuaded by the ministry’s explanation.

In 2016 and 2017 alone, North Korea tested 40 ballistic missiles. Such a ratcheting up of tensions prompted the government to decide to introduce two Aegis Ashore systems that can launch interceptor missiles called Standard Missile-3 (SM-3).

The addition will complete a threefold defense, with the Maritime SDF’s Aegis destroyer packing SM-3 and Air SDF's surface-to-air interceptor missiles called the Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC-3).

The decision to deploy the U.S.-made Aegis Ashore system was also the Japanese government’s appeasement of U.S. President Donald Trump, who has championed a “Buy American” policy.

The government signed a deal with the U.S. government to pay 140 billion yen ($12.7 billion), which is just part of the cost of the main system, in April.

Meanwhile, however, the confrontational mood in East Asia has ratcheted down to one of greater dialogue, especially in light of two summits between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and top-level talks between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

Abe recently reversed his stance and expressed willingness to have direct talks with Kim with no preconditions.

Trump stated support for Abe’s decision to seek a summit with Kim, at a joint news conference held in Tokyo on May 27, during the president's four-day visit to Japan as a state guest.

Even though North Korea test-launched a short-range ballistic missile on May 9, tensions between both countries have eased, compared to the time the Japanese government decided to deploy the Aegis Ashore system.

Opposition party members and others have spoken out against the deployment plan because they argue that it is no longer necessary.

The government initially aimed to start the Aegis Ashore operation in fiscal 2023, but development of radar that will be equipped with the system has been delayed. It is expected to take about five years to develop the radar starting from fiscal 2019. The operation of the system will surely be delayed until fiscal 2024 or later.

(This article was written by Hayato Jinno, Anri Takahashi and Ryuichi Yamashita.)