AKITA/HAGI, YAMAGUCHI PREF. - Located in northwestern Honshu on the Sea of Japan coast, Akita Prefecture has long been thought of in Tokyo and especially western Japan as remote — part of poet Matsuo Basho’s famed “The Narrow Road to the Deep North.”
The prefecture is well-known for the Akita Kanto Festival — one of three great summer festivals in the Tohoku region — and kiritampo nabe, a hot pot dish. It’s also famous for its so-called Akita bijin (beautiful local women).
If the central government gets its way, the city of Akita will also become known as the home for one of two Aegis Ashore systems Japan plans to build in an effort to improve its ability to detect and shoot down missiles launched from North Korea or elsewhere.
But the designated site in the city of Akita is only hundreds of meters from schools and homes, and close to downtown. The choice of location has sparked local anger and opposition, even among those who say they aren’t automatically opposed in principle — just not in their backyard, please.
The central government is looking at the Ground Self-Defense Force’s Araya training area, about 3 km from the Akita Prefectural Government offices and 5 km from Akita Station.
The potential site for the other Aegis Ashore unit is the GSDF Mutsumi training area in Hagi, Yamaguchi Prefecture.
In its 2018 white paper, the Defense Ministry explained the need for Aegis Ashore by saying it will fundamentally boost Japan’s ability to protect itself “seamlessly” at all times, something more difficult with ship-based Aegis systems.
“The working environment for the crew onboard an Aegis-equipped destroyer is extremely severe. These ships must make port calls for maintenance and replenishment, creating gaps in defense posture. This means frequent long-term deployments for the crew to eliminate these undesired intervals. This burden on personnel is anticipated to be lifted significantly once Aegis Ashore is deployed,” the white paper states.
“The upcoming introduction of the land-based Aegis system, Aegis Ashore, will enable our forces to intercept missiles in the upper tier not just from Aegis destroyers but also from land,” it adds.
The United States and Japan are also jointly developing advanced interceptor missiles called the Standard Missile-3 Block IIA, which will have a better ability to take out launched missiles earlier than the ones currently in use.
Plans call for eight Japanese Aegis-equipped destroyers with ballistic missile defense capabilities, including the SM-3 Block IIA type. The systems are scheduled for deployment in fiscal 2021 and the aim is to also deploy them at Aegis Ashore sites.
In September, the Defense Ministry released its fiscal 2019 budget request, which included procurement of two Aegis Ashore units at a cost of ¥123.7 billion each. In October, site surveys in Yamaguchi and Akita began, even as local opposition toughened.
In Akita, concerns about Aegis Ashore start with the question of why the central government is looking at a site lying within a city of about 308,000 people. Sixteen resident associations from the neighborhoods right beside the Araya area, representing about 13,000 people, have all voiced their formal opposition.
One resident, Shoichi Kosaka, lives just 300 meters from the Araya compound. Driving through quiet residential streets within sight of the border fence, he expressed some specific concerns.
“Medical evacuation flights are very important to Akita, given its elderly population. But if the Aegis Ashore system is built here, there will be limits on flights around the area. Of course, people may move away as well, because who wants to live beside an Aegis Ashore installation?” he said.
Kozo Kazama, who leads a local group opposed to the Aegis plan, also questioned the candidate site.
“Why the Defense Ministry chose Araya as a site for Aegis Ashore is a mystery. Unlike the other candidate site in Yamaguchi, which is located away from a major urban center, Araya is in a major city,” Kazama said. “There are so many concerns about the effects of the radar on both electronic devices in the area and on stress levels, as well as all sorts of security concerns related to the presence of missiles so close to so many people.”
Local politicians were also apparently taken by surprise at the central government’s decision to consider an Aegis Ashore unit in their backyard.
Kenta Suzuki, a member of the Liberal Democratic Party with a seat in the Akita Prefectural Assembly and a former member of the GSDF, said he first heard Araya was a candidate site in November 2017 — not from fellow LDP members or former Defense Ministry colleagues, but from media reports.
“My first reaction was that Araya wasn’t a good choice, with 13,000 people in the surrounding area,” Suzuki said. “I thought it might be better to locate the site somewhere along the prefectural coast, which is pretty much deserted. I expressed my concern to various Diet members and Defense Ministry officials.
“After multiple explanations, I was told that, because the Japanese government cannot just use whatever land it wants, negotiations with private landowners weren’t that simple. Only national government-owned land, or at least prefectural-owned land, would work, and that’s what I think led to the decision to choose Araya.”
In August, Defense Ministry officials visited Akita to explain their plans, saying about 200 personnel would be stationed at the Aegis Ashore site, which would include radar facilities and missile launchers.
Concerned that such a unit would be an attractive target for terrorists, Akita Gov. Norihisa Satake told them that it wasn’t enough to merely conduct a technical evaluation of the site but that a safety policy was needed.
“A buffer zone of at least 700 to 800 meters, and preferably 1 km, is needed between the radar and missile areas and the surrounding areas. If that is not physically possible, a further survey looking at possible replacement facilities will help determine the results as to whether the site is appropriate,” Satake said.
The fight in Yamaguchi
Nearly 1,000 km away to the southwest by air, another Sea of Japan coastal community is facing the prospect of hosting the other planned Aegis Ashore unit. The town of Abu lies deep in the Yamaguchi Prefecture countryside, about a 30-minute drive from the port city of Hagi. Here, the GSDF’s Mutsumi training area is also undergoing surveys to determine its appropriateness for hosting the Aegis Ashore system.
Mutsumi is about half a kilometer away, just over the mountain from an area known throughout Yamaguchi Prefecture and western Japan for its watermelons, Chinese lemons, spinach and onions.
“There are concerns about radio waves from the Aegis radar and whether cellphone reception and television sets would be affected. And you can’t say that there’s been a sufficient investigation into the effects of the Aegis Ashore on human health,” said Sumiko Hara, 75, one of the leaders of the local opposition.
“Part of the area is classified as an active volcano zone, with a lava plateau. Water has been trapped underneath for millennia. It’s extremely high-quality and excellent for the surrounding fields. If you put an Aegis Ashore system, a de facto missile base, there will be a negative effect on the water quality,” said Masaaki Morikami, a Hagi-based opponent of the project.
Opponents in Hagi like Hara began collecting signatures in July. By, October, 750 of the Mutsumi area’s 1,450 residents had said they were opposed. They were joined by Abu Mayor Norihiko Hanada and the municipal assembly, which announced they were against the Aegis Ashore plan in September because its deployment would create safety and stress concerns.
In late October, Defense Ministry officials met with Hanada to explain that on-site water quality checks would be conducted at the GSDF Mutsumi base. Hanada, while not opposing the survey if its purpose was to collect information, reiterated his opposition to the project.
“There are still a lot questions local residents have. Unfortunately, as this is a Defense Ministry project, the local governments are limited in what they can do and the central government can keep much information secret,” said Rota Asai, a member of the Hagi Municipal Assembly.
Other issues of common concern among opponents, or skeptics, include the cost, as well as the fear that the main reason Aegis Ashore is being introduced is to appease the U.S., especially President Donald Trump and his pressure on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to purchase more U.S. defense equipment.
The Defense Ministry expects to complete its surveys next March, at which time both Akita and Hagi will have a better idea as to whether the central government sees the Araya and Mutsumi areas as technically appropriate for Aegis Ashore.
But despite the current level of local political opposition, promises of various forms of central government funding for Hagi and Akita, in the form of support for tourism promotion, transportation infrastructure projects and other forms of sweeteners could end up blunting the resistance.
Both locations have particularly strong links to the current LDP administration. Abe represents the Yamaguchi No. 4 district, right beside Hagi, and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, born and raised in Akita Prefecture, still has good contacts there, according to Kazama.
Those are the kinds of old political connections that will come in handy for Aegis Ashore supporters in the local LDP-dominated governments of Akita and Yamaguchi prefectures — if and when it is formally decided that Araya and Mutsumi will be the locations. Aegis Ashore could become a campaign issue in the Akita municipal and prefectural assembly elections in April, at least in some areas, Suzuki said. But in general there isn’t a lot of concern about the issue in other parts of Akita Prefecture.
In Hagi, assembly member Asai said that because a majority of the assembly is not really opposed, it will be hard, politically, to stop Aegis Ashore from coming to Mutsumi.
In the end, it will depend on whether the central government determines both sites are judged as appropriate or not for an Aegis Ashore unit. The technical data for that assessment is still being gathered and analyzed. The central government has said, repeatedly, that local approval is a precondition.
But whether the sites will ultimately host Aegis Ashore depends on how fierce local opposition in both places truly is, and how long the resistance remains in the face of promises of funding. The opposition will certainly face political pressure from a central government that is determined to move forward with national defense plans for the next decade, of which Aegis Ashore is an integral part, and will do whatever it takes to ensure those plans are enacted as quickly as possible.