Tokyo, Japan – The frequent tests and growing sophistication of North Korean missiles is prompting the Japanese government and the general public to think carefully about civil defence. What if Pyongyang actually did fire missiles at a major Japanese city?
An opinion poll published by the Japan News Network at the beginning of May found that 90 percent of the public admitted feeling worried about North Korea and 54 percent said that they were greatly worried.
Each year, we have received only one or two orders to build underground shelters ... but now that the people have become afraid of North Korean missiles, there are many who want our shelters. We've become very busy.
The conservative government of Shinzo Abe, the Liberal Democratic Party leader who became Japan’s prime minister in 2012, has tried to respond to these fears in part by giving assurances that it is working hard to fulfil its duty to defend the nation.
But there are also suggestions that the government is more subtly stoking these concerns just enough to assist it in its long-term agenda of dispensing with the remnants of the nation’s post-war pacifism and moving towards constitutional revision.
There were certainly mixed reviews when Tokyo Metro, a subway company that serves millions of commuters in the Japanese capital, shut down all of its train lines for about 10 minutes on the morning of April 29 in response to news reports that North Korea had fired a missile. While some commentators appreciated the abundance of caution shown by the company, others pointed out that even in Seoul, the capital of South Korea, which is much closer to the danger zone, no such measures have ever been taken.
This criticism led Tokyo Metro to quickly change its company policy. In the future, the subway trains will be halted only if an official warning is issued through the J-Alert system of the Fire and Disaster Management Agency (FDMA), and not in response to media reports.
The J-Alert system is a fundamental pillar of Japan’s civil defence measures. First launched in 2007, the system involves the FDMA sending out a warning signal via satellite that is to be received by Japanese local governments, which in turn warn the general public about the emergency through loudspeakers and other broadcasts. By 2014, all local governments throughout the nation were provided with the necessary receivers and were woven into the J-Alert system.
Drills and bomb shelters
Some local governments are now beginning to organise public drills. On June 11, for example, a drill was held in Fukuyama city. It was the first such exercise within the Hiroshima Prefecture. About 150 elderly local residents gathered in the outer yard of an elementary school and were exposed to the peculiar drone of the J-Alert system, which most of them had never before heard. They then filed into the school gymnasium, their evacuation point.
So far, drills involving the public seem to be occurring only in a handful of regional cities. A visit to the disaster preparation section of Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward, which includes the Imperial Palace and the seat of the national government, discovered little evidence of any special missile defence preparations.
Most recently, governing party politician Ryota Takeda has been leading the Study Team for Civil Protection. This team is expected to propose that many buildings and underground areas be designated as shelters in the event of a missile attack or a similar calamity, and that even underground shelters be constructed for the specific purpose of civil defence.
In this regard, some members of the public are not waiting for the government to act. Al Jazeera English spoke by telephone to Akira Shiga, manager at the Shizuoka-based company Earth Shift, which is believed to be the only private enterprise in Japan that currently builds bomb shelters.
“Each year, we have received only one or two orders to build underground shelters,” Shiga explains, “but now that the people have become afraid of North Korean missiles, there are many who want our shelters. We’ve become very busy.” A year ago, he adds, Earth Shift would receive roughly one call a week from a customer interested in building a shelter. Now, they are receiving 10 to 30 calls each business day.
Despite such activity, there are strong reasons to doubt that the government will go beyond efforts to educate the public and to prepare emergency services. Representative Takeda’s notion of building underground shelters has distinct limitations. The population of the greater Tokyo area alone is estimated at around 37.8 million people.
It is thought that a missile fired from North Korea would land in Tokyo approximately 10 minutes after it is launched.
Under such circumstances, any civil defence measures, such as the building of underground shelters, would be both prohibitively expensive and of quite modest utility. Military anti-missile systems such as Aegis Ashore or THAAD are essentially the only line of defence.
The rest is mainly about easing public fears and perhaps channelling them into lanes that better suit the governing party’s political objectives.
Michael Penn is president of the Shingetsu News Agency.