Photo/Illutration(The Asahi Shimbun)

  • Photo/Illustraion

AKITA--The controversial deployment of an Aegis Ashore missile defense system has become the key flash point in the Akita constituency of the July 21 Upper House election, where only one seat is contested.

Though the Defense Ministry plans to deploy the land-based defense system in the Ground Self-Defense Force’s Araya exercise area in Akita city, errors were discovered in research for the deployment.

That and other embarrassing gaffes have forced Matsuji Nakaizumi, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party incumbent, on the defensive. On the campaign trail, he is busy apologizing and promising to conduct the research again.

His opponent, independent Shizuka Terata, has seized on the controversy in her campaign. Although a newcomer, Terata is backed by the major opposition parties.

The result of the election in the constituency that covers Akita Prefecture is likely to have a major influence over whether the ministry can deploy Aegis Ashore to the city.

On July 13, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gave a speech in a square in front of JR Akita Station. Abe criticized the ministry’s slipshod research, saying, “It handled the issue inappropriately. It is extremely regrettable and outrageous.”

He added, “I want to apologize to the people of Akita from the bottom of my heart,” and bowed his head for several seconds.

At the same time, Abe asked the public to accept the Aegis Ashore deployment in Akita, saying, “(The deployment) is absolutely necessary.”

He also said, “We will thoroughly implement the research by including third parties and experts (among the members of the research).”

In May, the Defense Ministry released the research it had conducted to the Akita prefectural government and the Akita city government that was later found to have been done slipshodly.

For example, mountains that could obstruct radar were mistakenly described larger than their actual heights. Though the reports said that the facilities for the Aegis Ashore system are under no threat from a tsunami, the ministry later admitted that anti-tsunami measures are necessary.

In an explanatory meeting for residents, one of the ministry's staff members dozed off, drawing heavy criticism.

LDP CAMPAIGN IN CRISIS

In the campaign for the Upper House election, Nakaizumi, 40, lamented the fallout from the Aegis Ashore controversy in a gathering held in Ogata village on July 12 with about 200 people attending.

“My heart was likely to be crushed from the first day of the official campaign period due to the sense of crisis,” he said.

LDP candidates have won the Akita constituency in the past three Upper House elections in a row. In the 2016 Upper House election, the constituency was the only one of the six prefectures in the Tohoku region where an LDP candidate emerged victorious.

This time, however, the Aegis Ashore flap has instilled a strong sense of concern in the LDP.

When official election campaigning started on July 4, Nakaizumi said in his first appearance, “The Defense Ministry’s inaccurate research and insincere attitude in dealing with the issue are outrageous.”

However, he did not express opposition to the Abe administration’s plan of deploying the Aegis Ashore in Akita. Since then, Nakaizumi has only said, “Now we are at the stage before we can say that (the deployment) is good or bad.”

When he gives speeches in municipalities other than Akita city, Nakaizumi seldom refers to the deployment issue.

Meanwhile, his opponent, Terata, 44, has expressed opposition to the deployment since she announced her candidacy in March.

“I cannot allow the government to construct a missile base near residential areas and schools,” she said.

On July 14, Terata gave a speech in a square in front of JR Akita Station where Abe had spoken the previous day.

“I am shouldering the voices of local people who are feeling anxieties over the deployment,” she said.

On July 3, Terata participated in a gathering held in a meeting place about 1.5 kilometers from the Araya exercise area, which was attended by about 100 residents.

“If I lose the election, the government will think that the people of Akita support the deployment and will proceed with it positively. I want to stop it by any means,” said Terata.

Terata’s husband is Lower House lawmaker Manabu Terata. Manabu’s father is former Akita Governor Sukeshiro Terata, and the Terata family is renowned in Akita Prefecture.

Shizuka Terata is supported by four opposition parties: the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan; the Democratic Party for the People; the Japanese Communist Party; and the Social Democratic Party. She is also backed by the Akita chapter of the Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo).

However, Terata has declined to have Diet members of the opposition parties campaign in her behalf, in her desire to run as an independent.

When she started her official election campaign on July 4, the only person who is related to a political party and made a speech at her opening ceremony was Hiroshi Ishida, the representative of the Akita prefectural chapter of the SDP, who is serving as the head of her election office.

“There is a strong memory of Akita city suffering large-scale air raids in the Pacific War," Ishida said. "So, people have an awareness that if Aegis Ashore was deployed, the city will be targeted."

ANXIETIES NOT EASED

The Araya exercise area is located about a five-minute drive from the Akita prefectural government office. The 107-hectare site is surrounded by greenery, and its interior cannot be seen from the outside.

A golf course is located east of the exercise area. Akita Commercial High School, an elementary school and a junior high school are sited southeast of the exercise area.

“I oppose the deployment (of Aegis Ashore). It will become the first target of an enemy,” said local resident Kazuko Sudo, 70, who has lived near the Araya exercise area for 40 years.

An extraordinary directors’ meeting of the Araya-Katsuhira district promotion council, which consists of 16 local communities, was held from 6:30 p.m. on July 12. About 13,000 people from 5,300 households reside in the district.

In the meeting, directors talked about an endorsement request made by Terata. The promotion council had already adopted a resolution opposing the deployment.

However, Masashi Sasaki, chairman of the council, told reporters after the meeting, in apparently deciding against making an endorsement, that “individual views and assertions are different. It is difficult to make decisions mandatorily."

The directors decided in the meeting that each individual will vote based on his or her own judgment. That was because degrees of opposition to the deployment differ depending on the individual.

The Defense Ministry says that it plans to create a 700-meter-wide buffer zone between the radar and missile launching devices and houses. However, anxiety remains among local residents, who fear that, “We may become targets of an enemy’s attack in emergency situations” and “We may suffer health hazards from electromagnetic waves.”

Akita Governor Norihisa Satake supports Nakaizumi by placing importance on maintaining relations with the central government. In a news conference on July 8, however, he cited the Aegis Ashore deployment as a point of dispute of the Upper House election.

In Nakaizumi’s ceremony to open his election campaign, Satake said, “I have no intention of negotiating with the government based on the premise that the Araya is the most suitable candidate site for the deployment.”

The number of eligible voters in Akita city accounts for about 30 percent of all of the eligible voters in Akita Prefecture.

(This article was written by Hayato Jinno, Yoichi Masuda, Mikito Soda and Ryuichi Yamashita.)