Photo/Illutration A Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) surface-to-air interceptor is set up to shoot down missiles during a drill held in October 2019 in Tokyo’s Koto Ward. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Japan’s Self-Defense Forces is waging a battle of public opinion here at home to keep its missile defense system ready to deploy to defend the nation from a sudden attack.

Local opposition to carrying out deeply unpopular anti-missile drills in urban areas is preventing it from being adequately prepared to carry out defensive measures in the event of an actual crisis because of the scant training taking place, according to insider sources.

The SDF has conducted few on-site exercises in key areas to deploy its interceptor missiles that would shoot down missiles rocketing toward Japan, despite that those units must be set up as quickly as possible in emergencies.

In recent months, North Korea has launched a series of missiles toward the Sea of Japan--as many as 13 ballistic missiles over the seven months since September last year.

The North has developed new ways it can send its missiles into the air, including one launched from a train on Sept. 15 and one from a submarine on Oct. 19.

“It is difficult to detect the signs of a launch to predict when and where these types (of missiles) are shot from,” a Defense Ministry source said.

Japan has prepared what officials refer to as a “double-wall” framework to protect its territory. Aegis destroyers mounted with SM-3 interceptors are supposed to strike enemy missiles outside the atmosphere.

Missed targets would then be dealt with near the ground by the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) surface-to-air missiles installed on land.

The launcher for PAC-3 missiles is mounted on a truck. It can cover an area stretching only dozens of kilometers around it. Therefore, in times of crisis, it needs to be quickly deployed to areas that might be targeted.

The SDF has been improving the skills of its operators through rigorous training to quickly mobilize its PAC-3s.

But according to one SDF insider, few drills have been done in “urban regions that have to be guarded from threats in highly tense situations,” even though they need to be practiced there.

Defense Ministry records show interceptors were sent out of SDF bases or U.S. military bases in drills on only five occasions since such counts became available in 2009.

The ministry sets out on its website that “similar exercises will be staged successively in regions nationwide, including those outside our facilities.” But that goal has yet to be accomplished.


Negative public sentiment toward local deployments of the military equipment is the key obstacle in holding interceptor drills on urban streets.

Anti-missile units that need to be set up in urban areas and crowded residential areas during emergencies are seen as a blight to the community when mobilized there and run up against stiff "not-in-my-backyard" opposition.

“It is extremely difficult to win the cooperation of local governments,” said a ministry source.

An official of a prefecture in eastern Japan said it is easier said than done to resolve the conflict.

“I can understand the need, but some people see them (interceptors) as dreadful,” said the official. “There are high hurdles to giving the green light.”

In many cases, the SDF and local governments will hold talks but then fail to reach agreements to organize training sessions. The SDF is sometimes asked to provide residents with detailed explanations beforehand.

But an SDF insider said it is unrealistic for the SDF to devote so much time and personnel to organize a single exercise.

“We can sympathize with local governments’ worries about complaints from citizens,” said the insider. “But gaining experience in stationing interceptors in urban districts plays a major role in protecting these very citizens in the event of an emergency. We want them to know how essential it is.”

The representative of a local government in the Kanto region around Tokyo, which does not allow exercises against missile attacks, spelled out the politics clearly.

“We do not want to see ourselves bear the brunt of criticism from residents,” the representative said.


Hiroo Ichikawa, a professor emeritus at Meiji University who specializes in public policy studies and risk management, stressed the difficulty of testing missile interceptors placed on public streets.

“Installing weapons in urban areas would have a significant impact on residents on its own,” he said. “They cannot understand the need unless they are actually thrown into a critical situation.”

But Ichikawa said preparing for potential missile attacks is just as vital as preparing for natural disasters.

“Discussions need to be deepened over how to hold drills in urban districts,” he said.

Hideshi Takesada, a visiting professor of military affairs in East Asia at Takushoku University’s graduate school, said the SDF should not give up on the option.

“It would be inappropriate to not hold exercises simply due to opposition from residents in this era given the surrounding nations’ increasingly aggressive military operations these days,” he said.

(This article was written by Kaigo Narisawa and Senior Staff Writer Yoshitaka Ito.)