Tokyo doctors call for cancellation of Olympic Games due to COVID-19

By Antoni Slodkowski

TOKYO (Reuters) -A top medical organization has thrown its weight behind calls to cancel the Tokyo Olympics saying hospitals are already overwhelmed as the country battles a spike in coronavirus infections less than three months from the start of the Games.

The Tokyo Medical Practitioners Association representing about 6,000 primary care doctors said hospitals in the Games host city “have their hands full and have almost no spare capacity” amid a surge in infections.

“We strongly request that the authorities convince the IOC (International Olympic Committee) that holding the Olympics is difficult and obtain its decision to cancel the Games,” the association said in a May 14 open letter to Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga which was posted to its website on Monday.

A jump in infections has stoked alarm amid a shortage of medical staff and hospital beds in some areas of the Japanese capital, promoting the government to extend a third state of emergency in Tokyo and several other prefectures until May 31.

Doctors would soon face the added difficulty of dealing with heat exhaustion patients during the summer months and if the Olympics contributed to a rise in deaths “Japan will bear the maximum responsibility”, it added.

Other health experts and medical groups have voiced their concerns about the Olympics, while an online petition calling for the Games to be cancelled was signed by hundreds of thousands of people.

Overall, Japan has avoided an explosive spread of the virus experienced by other nations, but the government has come under sharp criticism for its sluggish vaccination roll-out.

Only about 3.5% of its population of about 126 million has been vaccinated, according to a Reuters tracker.

Underscoring the challenges with the vaccinations, booking systems for mass inoculation sites being launched in Tokyo and Osaka – which started accepting bookings on Monday – were marred by technical glitches.

Still, Suga says Japan can host “a safe and secure Olympics” while following appropriate COVID-19 containment measures.

Preparations for the July 23-Aug. 8 Games are progressing under tight COVID-19 protocols, such as an athletics test event featuring 420 athletes in early May.

But multiple pre-Olympic training camps, including one for the United States’ track and field team have been cancelled, and athletes have voiced concerns about the Games taking place in the midst of a global pandemic.

Canadian equestrian athlete and gold medalist Eric Lamaze announced on Monday that he had pulled out of being an Olympic candidate, citing personal health concerns. He has been treated for a brain tumor over the past three years.

“My health is something that I take very seriously, and I’ve decided that Tokyo is not the best venue for me,” Lamaze said in the statement.

“The Olympics are a celebration of the athletes and I don’t think we’re going to have a true celebration in Tokyo,” he added. “It’s not the time to celebrate.”

The Games have already been postponed once due to the pandemic.

With cases surging across much of Asia, the World Economic Forum on Monday cancelled its annual meeting of the global elite due to be held in Singapore in August.

Under the state of emergency in parts of Japan, bars, restaurants, karaoke parlors and other places serving alcohol will remain closed, although large commercial facilities can re-open under shorter hours. Hard-hit Tokyo and Osaka will continue to keep these larger facilities closed.

The number of COVID-19 cases nationwide dropped to 3,680 on Monday, the lowest level since April 26, according to public broadcaster NHK, but the number of heavy infections hit a record high of 1,235, the health ministry said on Tuesday.

(Reporting by Antoni Slodkowski; Editing by Stephen Coates and Michael Perry)

‘Not like prison’ – gymnasts content with COVID restrictions before Tokyo test

By Jack Tarrant

TOKYO (Reuters) – At an upscale hotel in Tokyo, gymnasts from the United States, Russia, China and Japan are getting a taste of what more than 11,000 athletes might experience when the city hosts the postponed Olympic Games next year.

They are preparing for Sunday’s meet, which will be the first international event to be held at an Olympic venue since the COVID-19 pandemic forced the Games’ postponement.

The one-off event is seen as a trial run for how international athletes may travel to and stay in Japan safely during the Games.

The 30 gymnasts are staying at the same hotel but on separate floors and have different training times to avoid contact.

“Before breakfast, we take a COVID test and they also gave us cell phones that alert us if someone has COVID (in the group),” 16-year-old eMjae Frazier, who had never previously travelled outside of the United States, told Reuters from her hotel room.

“They are being very safe and cautious but it is not like we are in prison.”

Team members are chaperoned from the team bus to their rooms and to the dining room for meals.

“The U.S. team is only allowed to be in the elevators (with the) U.S. team,” said Yul Moldauer.

“We can’t be in there with China, Russia or Japan.”

“We are on the 14th floor and we aren’t allowed beyond the 14th floor, only going down for food when it is lunch, breakfast or dinner time.”

Moldauer, who won bronze at the 2017 World Championships, said he wasn’t bored being stuck in his room and was enjoying looking at the view of Tokyo Tower from his window.

However, the 23-year-old added that he will bring a video games console if he returns for a longer period during the Olympics.

As well as daily COVID-19 tests, all gymnasts and team officials must pass through temperature checks and anti-bacterial sprays when arriving at the meet venue.

There are some benefits to the limitations, according to U.S. coach Tricia Scott.

“We have a lot more time,” she said.

“We don’t have to vie for space, taking turns on beam or taking turns on bars… so that part is very nice.”

Russian athlete Nikita Nagornyy told a virtual news conference later on Friday that he hoped this competition was a sign of things to come.

“I think that the competition we take part in shows that the Olympic Games can and should be held,” he said.

(Reporting by Jack Tarrant; Editing by Christian Radnedge)

Tokyo 2020 delay looms after Canada and Australia exit

By Steve Keating and Leika Kihara

TORONTO/TOKYO (Reuters) – Major sporting nations Australia and Canada withdrew from the Tokyo 2020 Olympics on Monday as organizers faced global pressure to postpone the Games due to the coronavirus crisis for the first time in their 124-year modern history.

Putting back the July 24-Aug. 9 event, as is looking inevitable, would be a massive blow for host Japan which has pumped in more than $12 billion of investment.

Huge sums are also at stake for sponsors and broadcasters.

But a groundswell of concern from athletes – already struggling to train as gyms, stadiums and swimming pools close around the world – appears to be tipping the balance, along with the cancellation of other major sports events.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Japanese government have both edged back from weeks of blanket insistence the Games would go ahead, announcing a month-long consultation over other scenarios including postponement.

The Olympics have never before been delayed, though they were canceled altogether in 1916, 1940 and 1944 during the World Wars, and major Cold War boycotts disrupted the Moscow and Los Angeles Games in 1980 and 1984 respectively.

“The moment the IOC indicates that it is thinking about other solutions, it has already decided to delay the Games,” said French Olympic Committee president Denis Masseglia.

Canada and Australia both bluntly said they would not participate if the Games were not put back to 2021 and Britain may follow suit.

“We are in the midst of a global health crisis that is far more significant than sport,” said Canada’s Olympic Committee (COC) and Paralympic Committee (CPC) in a statement.

“STRESS AND UNCERTAINTY”

“Our athletes have been magnificent in their positive attitude to training and preparing, but the stress and uncertainty have been extremely challenging for them,” said Australia’s Olympics Chef de Mission, Ian Chesterman.

Paralympic athletes were considered at particular risk from the epidemic given some had underlying health problems. More than 14,600 people have died globally from the coronavirus.

Russia urged global sporting authorities to avoid “panic” over the Olympics and U.S. President Donald Trump expressed confidence in Japan to make the “proper” call.

But a raft of other nations and sports bodies piled pressure on the IOC – and its powerful president Thomas Bach, a former Olympic fencing champion – to make a quick decision on postponement.

“The faster the decision the better it is for the entire Olympic movement,” Greece’s Olympic head, Spyros Capralos, a former water polo player, told Reuters.

“I understand where the athletes are coming from … When you cannot train you are stressed, you live in agony which is disastrous. Postponement is inevitable.”

Athletes were sad but broadly supportive of a delay.

“The right choice was made, but it doesn’t make it any easier,” said Canadian world champion swimmer Maggie MacNeil, who was hoping to make her Olympic debut in Tokyo.

“Sometimes you just need a good hug.”

ABE AND BACH UNDER PRESSURE

Japanese authorities seemed to be bowing to the inevitable despite the losses and logistics headaches it would entail.

“We may have no option but to consider postponing,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was hoping for a boom in tourism and consumer spending, told parliament.

The organizing committee was already scaling back the torch relay to avoid crowds, NHK broadcaster said.

Both Japan and the IOC have stressed that calling off the Games entirely is not an option.

But finding a new date could be complicated as the summer 2021 calendar is already crowded, while 2022 will see the soccer World Cup and the Beijing Winter Olympics.

Japanese sponsors, from Toyota Motor Corp to Panasonic Corp, were nervously watching. But Tokyo stocks sensitive to the success of the Olympics surged on Monday, after sharp falls in prior weeks, thanks to expectations of a delay rather than a cancellation.

Ad agency Dentsu Group shares jumped 12%.

Postponement could be a major blow to the IOC’s prestige after weeks of saying the Games would go ahead as planned.

Many athletes already felt disrespected during the Russian doping scandal when Bach ensured Russians could carry on competing, albeit as neutrals. Now his strong grip on the IOC could weaken after various national committees distanced themselves from his stance over Tokyo.

“IOC President Thomas Bach’s stubbornness and arrogance have spectacularly failed in this instance and he has weakened the Olympic movement,” British Olympic gold medal track cyclist Callum Skinner wrote on Twitter.

Bach is up for re-election in 2021.

Global Athlete Group said the IOC’s planned, month-long consultation was irresponsible. “Over the next four weeks the world is going to increasingly shut down, the COVID-19 virus will sadly take more lives, and without a clear answer, athletes are still being indirectly asked to train,” it said.

(Additional reporting by Reuters bureaux worldwide; Writing by Karolos Grohmann and Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Nick Macfie, William Maclean)

Two passengers from coronavirus-hit cruise ship in Japan die, authorities defend quarantine

By Linda Sieg and Chang-Ran Kim

TOKYO (Reuters) – Two elderly passengers became the first people from aboard a cruise ship moored near Tokyo to die of the coronavirus, the Japanese government said on Thursday, as hundreds more passengers disembarked after two weeks’ quarantine.

The 621 coronavirus cases aboard the Diamond Princess cruise liner are by far the largest cluster of infection outside China. The ship has been held since Feb. 3 with initially 3,700 people on board.

The two patients who died, an 87-year-old man and an 84-year-old woman, had both tested positive for the virus although the woman’s cause of death was listed as pneumonia, the health ministry said. Two government officials who had worked on the ship were infected, it added, bringing the number of infected officials to five.

Public broadcaster NHK reported that 27 people from the ship were in serious condition.

The quarantine operation has sparked criticism of Japan’s authorities just months before Tokyo is due to host the Summer Olympics.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga defended Japan’s efforts. He told a news conference that after measures were put in place to isolate passengers on Feb. 5, the number of new infections fell.

Japan’s National Institute of Infectious Diseases (NIID) said in a report issued Wednesday that no new cases of the onset of the COVID-19 disease from the cruise ship were reported on Feb. 16-17 and only one crew member case on Feb. 15.

In a move to reassure the public, the health ministry also issued a statement in both English and Japanese that said all passengers had been required to stay in their cabins since Feb. 5. Critics have noted that the day before that order, as passengers were being screened, shipboard events continued, including dances and quiz games.

SAFE TO GO HOME?

About 1,000 Japanese released from the ship after testing negative for the virus were permitted to go straight home this week. Other countries are flying their citizens home but subjecting them to two more weeks of quarantine on arrival.

“We believe the isolation was effective,” Suga, the chief cabinet minister, said.

Those who have shared a room with infected people are being kept on board under further quarantine.

Around 600 people are expected to disembark on Thursday, 500 of whom will return to their homes in Japan, according to the health ministry. On Wednesday, 800 people left the ship including foreigners who left on evacuation flights.

“We are asking people to keep an eye on their temperature at home,” a health ministry official told Reuters. The government handed out pamphlets with advice on the disease, which has killed more than 2,100 people, mostly in China.

Some experts, however, worry returnees could infect others. Findings published in the New England Journal of Medicine on Wednesday suggest the virus may be spread more easily than previously thought, including by carriers who have no symptoms.

The health ministry official said the United States had taken the decision to risk bringing home infected passengers, and it was up to each country to quarantine people entering their ports as appropriate.

“Our stance is that Japan as the local authority has already quarantined these people for two weeks,” the official said, adding that if people sent home from the Diamond Princess later test positive, they would have caught the virus off the ship.

(Additional reporting by Akiko Okamoto, Ju-min Park, Hideto Sakai, Daewong Kim, Elaine Lies, Makiko Yamazaki and Tim Kelly; writing by Linda Sieg and David Dolan; Editing by Sam Holmes, Michael Perry and Peter Graff)

Japan braces as typhoon charts course for main island

Super typhoon Trami is seen from the International Space Station as it moves in the direction of Japan, September 25, 2018 in this image obtained from social media on September 26, 2018. ESA/NASA-A.Gerst/via REUTERS

By Elaine Lies

TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan braced for high winds and heavy rain as a typhoon roared north on Friday, enveloping outlying islands in high seas before taking aim at the rest of the nation and raking across its biggest main island at the weekend.

Typhoon Trami, rated category 2 by Tropical Storm Risk, with category 5 the highest, is the latest storm to threaten Japan in a year filled with more than the usual number of disasters, including punishing heat, heavy rains, and landslides.

Less than a month ago, a typhoon flooded Kansai International airport near Osaka, leaving thousands of tourists stranded.

Outlying islands in the Okinawan chain, some 1,000 km southwest of Tokyo, were being pounded by heavy seas and strong winds, just two days before an Okinawan gubernatorial election, forcing some areas to hold voting early. The central government set up an emergency office to deal with the storm.

Trami was about 300 km (186 miles) southeast of Miyako island, with winds gusting as high as 216 kilometers an hour (134 mph).

Churning north across Okinawa on Saturday, Trami is then predicted to rake across the islands of Kyushu and the main island of Honshu on Sunday, a path similar to that taken by typhoon Jebi early in September.

Though the Japanese capital of Tokyo is set for heavy rain, current predictions show it avoiding a direct hit.

Jebi, the most powerful storm to hit Japan in 25 years, brought some of the highest tides since a 1961 typhoon and flooded Kansai airport near Osaka, taking it out of service for days.

Seventeen people died in the storm, whose high winds sent trees crashing to the ground and cars scudding across parking lots.

Even for a nation accustomed to disasters, this year has been hard for Japan, starting with a volcanic eruption in January that rained rocks down on a ski resort, killing one.

July brought record-breaking heat that killed at least 80 people and sent over 20,000 to the hospital for treatment, along with torrential rains in western Japan that set off floods and landslides, killing more than 200.

Just two days after Jebi hit in September, the northernmost main island of Hokkaido was rocked by an earthquake that set off landslides, knocked out power throughout the island and killed at least 44 people.

(Editing by Nick Macfie)

In quake-prone Japan, attention shifts to flood risks as heavy rains increase

FILE PHOTO: The staff of metropolitan outer floodway management office looks around a pressure-adjusting water tank, part of an underground water discharge tunnel which was constructed to protect Tokyo and its suburb areas against floodwaters and overflow of the city's major waterways and rivers during heavy rain and typhoon seasons, at the facility in Kasukabe, north of Tokyo, Japan August 29, 2018. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

By Kiyoshi Takenaka

TOKYO (Reuters) – Japanese have long been conditioned to prepare for earthquakes, but recent powerful typhoons and sudden, heavy rains have brought to the forefront another kind of disaster: flooding.

Experts warn that thousands could die and as many as 5 million people would need to be evacuated if massive dikes and levees in low-lying eastern Tokyo are overwhelmed by surging floodwaters.

The cities of Osaka and Nagoya also face flood risks, experts say, amid an increase in sudden heavy rainfall across the country in recent years, a symptom linked to global warming.

“Japan’s major metropolitan areas are, in a way, in a state of national crisis,” said Toshitaka Katada, a professor of disaster engineering at the University of Tokyo.

In July, parts of western Japan were deluged with more than 1,000 millimeters (39 inches) of torrential rain. Gushing water broke levees and landslides destroyed houses, killing more than 200 people in the country’s worst weather disaster in 36 years.

“If this happened to Tokyo, the city would suffer catastrophic damage,” said Nobuyuki Tsuchiya, director of the Japan Riverfront Research Center and author of the book “Capital Submerged,” which urges steps to protect the city, which will host the 2020 Olympics and Rugby World Cup games next year.

Particularly vulnerable are the 1.5 million people who live below sea level in Tokyo, near the Arakawa River, which runs through the eastern part of the city.

In June, the Japan Society of Civil Engineers estimated that massive flooding in the area would kill more than 2,000 people and cause 62 trillion yen ($550 billion) in damage.

Experts could not say how likely that scenario was. But in recent years, the government has bolstered the city’s water defenses by building dams, reservoirs and levees.

But the pace of construction is too slow, said Satoshi Fujii, a special adviser to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who is known for pushing big infrastructure projects.

“They need to be taken care of as soon as possible,” he told Reuters.

John Coates, chairman of the International Olympic Committee’s coordination commission for the Tokyo 2020 Games, said the city should “take into account the potential for some of these disasters that seem to beset your country.”

In tacit acknowledgement that more needs to be done, the transport ministry late last month asked the finance ministry for 527 billion yen for levee reinforcement and evacuation preparation in next year’s budget. That’s a third more than the current year.

SURROUNDED BY WATER

Tokyo was last hit by major flooding in 1947, when Typhoon Kathleen inundated large swaths of the city and killed more than 1,000 people across Japan.

A survivor from that disaster, 82-year-old Eikyu Nakagawa, recalled living on the roof of his one-story house with his father for three weeks, surrounded by water. He remembered a pregnant woman who had taken refuge in a two-story house next door.

FILE PHOTO: Eikyu Nakagawa talks about flood preparation on a bank along the Nakagawa River near his house during an interview with Reuters in Tokyo, Japan August 24, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

FILE PHOTO: Eikyu Nakagawa talks about flood preparation on a bank along the Nakagawa River near his house during an interview with Reuters in Tokyo, Japan August 24, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

“The baby could come any minute, but we could not bring a midwife to her or take her to a doctor,” he said. “I was just a kid, but I lost sleep worrying that she might die.”

A similar disaster today would be much worse, Nakagawa predicted, because the area around his house in Tokyo’s eastern Katsushika ward, once surrounded by rice paddies, is now packed with buildings.

“It’s going to be terrible,” he said. “Now it’s so crowded with houses. Little can be done if water comes.”

Intense rainfall is on the upswing across Japan. Downpours of more than 80 millimeters in an hour happened 18 times a year on average over the 10 years through 2017, up from 11 times between 1976-85.

Warming global temperatures contribute to these bouts of extreme weather, scientists say.

“Higher ocean temperatures cause more moisture to get sucked up into the air,” said University of Tokyo’s Katada. “That means a very large amount of rain falling at once, and typhoons are more likely to grow stronger.”

Just last week, western Japan was battered by Typhoon Jebi, the strongest typhoon to make landfall in 25 years, which killed at least 13 people and inundating the region’s biggest international airport.

FILE PHOTO: Residents of Tokyo's Katsushika ward show a floating boat which they keep for a possible flood in Tokyo, Japan August 24, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

FILE PHOTO: Residents of Tokyo’s Katsushika ward show a floating boat which they keep for a possible flood in Tokyo, Japan August 24, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

EVACUATION NIGHTMARE

In late August, five low-lying wards in Tokyo jointly unveiled hazard maps outlining areas at high risk of flooding, and warned that up to 2.5 million residents may need to evacuate in case of a major disaster.

The maps, which will be available to residents online and via hard copy, show how deep floodwater would likely be for each area, and how long each area would remain underwater.

But such maps were largely ignored during the deadly flooding in western Japan in July.

If a disaster hits during weekday working hours, the number of evacuees could swell to 5 million, including those from neighboring wards, says Tsuchiya – a logistical nightmare. Tokyo prefecture has grown to 14 million people, with millions more in surrounding areas.

Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party has called for a new ministry that would focus on disaster prevention and recovery. Currently that is overseen by the Cabinet Office, which handles other disparate tasks such as laying out basic fiscal policy and nurturing technological innovation.

Companies also are waking up to the danger of floods, said Tomohisa Sashida, senior principal consultant at Tokio Marine & Nichido Risk Consulting.

“We have been often approached for quake-related business continuity plans.” he said. “But now they realize they need to keep flood risks in mind and flood-related consultations are certainly on the rise.”

(Reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka and Kwiyeon Ha; Editing by Malcolm Foster and Gerry Doyle)

Japanese capital holds first North Korean missile attack drill

Participants run during an anti-missile evacuation drill at the Tokyo Dome City amusement park in Tokyo, Japan January 22, 2018.

TOKYO (Reuters) – Tokyo held its first missile evacuation drill on Monday with volunteers taking cover in subway stations and other underground spaces that would double as shelters for the Japanese capital in the event of a North Korean missile strike.

The choreographed evacuations at a fair ground and park ringing the Tokyo Dome baseball stadium involved around 300 volunteers.

Small groups of protesters scuffled with police as they demonstrated against what they criticized as a war game that fanned public fear.

While hope grows that North Korea’s participation in next month’s Winter Olympics in South Korea may help defuse tension in the region, Japan is escalating efforts to prepare its citizens for a possible war.

Tokyo believes the threat posed by Pyongyang’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons development is deepening.

“A missile from North Korea would arrive in less than 10 minutes and the first alert would come about three minutes after launch, which gives us only around five minutes to find shelter,” Hiroyuku Suenaga, a Japanese government official, told volunteers after the Tokyo exercise.

Small Japanese towns and villages have conducted similar drills as North Korea has pushed ahead with its missile and nuclear weapons programs.

North Korea conducted its most recent and biggest nuclear bomb test in September and has tested dozens of ballistic missiles. The latest missile test in November reached an altitude of about 4,475 km (2,780 miles) and flew 950 km (590 miles), passing over Japan before splashing into waters in Japan’s exclusive economic zone.

Pyongyang says its weapons programs are a necessary defense against a possible U.S. invasion.

Amid public concern over the possibility of more missile launches, Japanese public broadcaster NHK issued a false launch alarm urging people to take shelter six days ago. That came days after a similar false alert caused panic across Hawaii.

“I am not that worried about North Korea, if something happened that would be frightening,” said Hidenobu Kondo, one of the volunteer evacuees. However, the 50-year-old company employee said the drill would not be of much use in the event of real attack.

“If I was at work it might be easy to evacuate, but If I was outside somewhere it would be more difficult,” Kondo said.

Japan’s defenses against a ballistic missile strike include Aegis destroyers in the Sea of Japan armed with interceptor missiles designed to destroy warheads in space. PAC-3 Patriot missile batteries represent a last line of defense against warheads that can plunge to their targets at several kilometers per second.

Japan has also decided to buy two land-based Aegis batteries and cruise missiles that could strike North Korean missile sites.

(Reporting by Tim Kelly; Editing by Paul Tait)

Putin says U.S. missile systems in Alaska, South Korea challenge Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a meeting with representatives of international news agencies in St. Petersburg, Russia, June 1, 2017.

By Denis Pinchuk and Andrew Osborn

ST PETERSBURG/MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday that elements of a U.S. anti-missile system in Alaska and South Korea were a challenge to Russia and that Moscow had no choice but to build up its own forces in response.

Putin, speaking at an economic forum in St Petersburg, said Russia could not stand idly by and watch while others increased their military capabilities along its borders in the Far East in the same way as he said had been done in Europe.

Participants attend a session of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF), Russia, June 1, 2017. REUTERS/Sergei

Participants attend a session of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF), Russia, June 1, 2017. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

He said Moscow was particularly alarmed by the deployment of the U.S. THAAD anti-missile system to South Korea to counter a North Korean missile threat and to reported U.S. plans to beef up Fort Greely in Alaska, a launch site for anti-ballistic missiles.

“This destroys the strategic balance in the world,” Putin told a meeting with international media, the start of which was broadcast on state TV.

“What is happening is a very serious and alarming process. In Alaska, and now in South Korea, elements of the anti-missile defence system are emerging. Should we just stand idly by and watch this? Of course not. We are thinking about how to respond to these challenges. This is a challenge for us.”

Washington was using North Korea as a pretext to expand its military infrastructure in Asia in the same way it had used Iran as a pretext to develop a missile shield in Europe, charged Putin.

RUSSIAN RESPONSE

Putin said the Kurile Islands, a chain of islands in the Far East where Moscow and Tokyo have rival territorial claims, were “quite a convenient place” to deploy Russian military hardware to respond to such threats.

Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said last year Russia planned to deploy some of its newest missile defence systems and drones to the islands, part of a drive to rearm military units already stationed there. He has also spoken of Russia building a military base there.

“I don’t agree that we are unilaterally starting to militarize these islands,” said Putin. “It is simply a forced response to what is happening in the region.” Any talk of demilitarizing the islands could only occur once tensions in the entire region had been reduced, he said.

Tokyo and Moscow have long been locked in talks over the contested islands, known as the Northern Territories in Japan. Putin said Russia was alive to the danger that Japan might allow U.S. troops to deploy there if it struck a deal to hand over some of the islands to Tokyo’s jurisdiction.

“Such a possibility exists,” said Putin.

Russia did not want to worsen already poor relations with Washington by fueling what he described as an arms race, but Putin said the United States was still consumed by what he called an anti-Russian campaign.

“How will the situation develop? We don’t know,” said Putin.

(Additional reporting by Dmitry Solovyov and Maria Kiselyova; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Alexander Winning)

Exclusive: U.S., Japanese firms collaborating on new missile defense radars – sources

FILE PHOTO: Logos of Mitsubishi Electric Corp are seen at a news conference at the company's headquarters in Tokyo, Japan, May 23, 2016. REUTERS/Toru Hanai/File Photo

By Tim Kelly and Nobuhiro Kubo

TOKYO (Reuters) – Raytheon Co and Lockheed Martin Corp are working with Japanese partners on rival projects to develop new radars that will enhance Japan’s shield against any North Korean missile strike, government and defense industry sources in Tokyo told Reuters.

As nuclear-armed Pyongyang builds ever more advanced missiles with the ability to strike anywhere in Japan, Tokyo is likely to fund a ground version of the ship-based Aegis defense system deployed on warships in the Sea of Japan, other sources had said earlier.

Raytheon is allied with Mitsubishi Electric Corp on the project while Lockheed is working with Fujitsu Ltd. The intent is to extend the range of Japan’s detection and targeting radars multiple times beyond range of models currently deployed at sea, the five government and industry sources said.

“Japan’s government is very interested in acquiring this capability,” said one of the sources with knowledge of the radar plans. The sources asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

“Japan wants to have Aegis Ashore operational by 2023 at the latest,” said another of the sources.

Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Mitsubishi Electric declined comment, while Fujitsu did not respond to requests for comment.

A spokesman for Japan’s Ministry of Defense said Tokyo did not currently have any concrete plans to collaborate with the United States on Aegis radars. “It is not our place to discuss the activities of corporations,” the spokesman added.

The proposed Aegis Ashore radars would be variants of models already developed by Raytheon and Lockheed, the sources said. They would include components using gallium nitride, an advanced material fabricated separately by Mitsubishi Electric and Fujitsu that can amplify power far more efficiently than conventional silicon-based semiconductors.

Nuclear-capable North Korea has a fast accelerating missile development program and Japanese officials have been worried that its ballistic missile defenses (BMD) could be overwhelmed by swarm attacks or be circumvented by warheads launched on lofted trajectories.

In the latest snub to demands it end its weapons program, North Korea on Sunday fired what it described as a intermediate-range ballistic missile that flew about 500 km (311 miles), falling into waters off its east coast.

It had tested another missile the previous Sunday. North Korea said that launch tested the capability to carry a “large-size heavy nuclear warhead” and put the U.S. mainland within “sighting range.”

Japan would likely need three Aegis Ashore batteries to cover the whole country, each of which would cost around $700 million without missiles, one of the sources said.

EXPORT

The idea is that such systems could eventually be sold to the U.S. or other militaries, representing a second chance for Japan to break into global arms markets after a failed bid last year to sell Australia a fleet of submarines in what Tokyo had hoped would spur military exports.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ended a decades-old ban on arms exports in 2014 to help beef up the nation’s military and lower the unit cost of home-built military equipment but Japan’s long-isolated defense companies have so far had scant success winning business overseas.

“Rather than a fully engineered submarine or other platform, the best way Japan can win export deals is to get Japanese components and technology integrated into U.S. equipment,” another of the sources said.

Japan is expected to make a final decision to acquire a ground-based Aegis system this year. It has also looked at buying THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense), which would add a third layer of defense between Aegis and Japan’s last line of defense PAC-3 Patriot missiles, to counter the North Korean threat.

Each THAAD battery, which come with missiles already loaded, costs around $1 billion.

Using either THAAD or beefed up Aegis radars could, however, anger China, which is already upset that THAAD batteries recently deployed in South Korea can peer deep beyond its border.

(Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

Japanese demand for nuclear shelters, purifiers surges as North Korea tension mounts

A North Korean navy truck carries the 'Pukkuksong' submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of country's founding father, Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang,

By Kiyoshi Takenaka

TOKYO (Reuters) – Sales of nuclear shelters and radiation-blocking air purifiers have surged in Japan in recent weeks as North Korea has pressed ahead with missile tests in defiance of U.N. sanctions.

A small company that specializes in building nuclear shelters, generally under people’s houses, has received eight orders in April alone compared with six orders during a typical year.

The company, Oribe Seiki Seisakusho, based in Kobe, western Japan, also has sold out of 50 Swiss-made air purifiers, which are said to keep out radiation and poisonous gas, and is trying to get more, said Nobuko Oribe, the company’s director.

A purifier designed for six people sells for 620,000 yen ($5,630) and one designed for 13 people and usually installed in a family-use shelter costs 1.7 million yen ($15,440).

Concerns about a possible gas attack have grown in Japan after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told a parliament session this month that North Korea may have the capacity to deliver missiles equipped with sarin nerve gas.

“It takes time and money to build a shelter. But all we hear these days, in this tense atmosphere, is that they want one now,” Oribe said. “They ask us to come right away and give them an estimate.”

Another small company, Earth Shift, based in Shizuoka prefecture, has seen a tenfold increase in inquiries and quotes for its underground shelters, Akira Shiga, a sales manager at the company said. The inquiries began gradually increasing in February and have come from all over Japan, he said.

FILE PHOTO: A soldier films North Korean soldiers, officers and high ranking officials attending a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of country's founding father Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang, North Korea

FILE PHOTO: A soldier films North Korean soldiers, officers and high ranking officials attending a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of country’s founding father Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang, North Korea, April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj/File Photo

EVACUATION DRILLS

North Korean missiles have fired with increasing frequency. Last month, three fell into waters within Japan’s exclusive economic zone, some 300-350 kilometers off the coast of northern Akita prefecture.

The Japanese government on Friday urged local governments to hold evacuation drills in case of a possible missile attack, heightening a sense of urgency among the public.

Some orders for the shelters were placed by owners of small-sized companies for their employees, and others by families, Oribe said. A nuclear shelter for up to 13 people costs about 25 million yen ($227,210) and takes about four months to build, he said.

The shelter his company offers is a reinforced, air-tight basement with an air purifier that can block radiation as well as poisonous gas. The room is designed to withstand a blast even when a Hiroshima-class nuclear bomb exploded just 660 meters away, Oribe said.

North Korea said on Sunday it was ready to sink a U.S. aircraft carrier to demonstrate its military might, in the latest sign of rising tension in the region.

The United States ordered the USS Carl Vinson carrier strike group to sail to waters off the Korean peninsula in response to mounting concern over the reclusive state’s nuclear and missile programmes.

In Japan’s previous experience with sarin gas in 1995, members of a doomsday cult killed 12 people and made thousands ill in attacks on Tokyo subways.

(Reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka Additional reporting by Teppei Kasai; Editing by Malcolm Foster and Bill Tarrant)