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Kansai gropes for missile response as Korean war hype builds

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

With North Korea test-launching missiles on a regular basis toward Japan, towns, cities and prefectures are getting more serious about how best to respond if and when one approaches.

Parts of the Kansai region along the Sea of Japan coast appear to lie within range of the missile North Korea sent up on May 14. But the level of effort, and attention, that prefectural governments in particular are giving to what they can and should do to respond to a missile attack varies greatly.

Like most other regions of Japan, the eight prefectures (Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, Hyogo, Wakayama, Tokushima, Shiga and Tottori) that belong to the Union of Kansai Governments have all listed general information, provided by the central government, about what to do in the event of a missile attack on their websites. However, as recent events have shown, there are differences in how they react to media reports, as opposed to official notifications about a launch.

Tottori Prefecture had perhaps the most detailed public response to the May 14 missile launch among Kansai-area prefectures.

Although the central government did not activate its J-Alert emergency advisory system, by 7:19 a.m., just over an hour after receiving the first media report of the launch, prefectural officials had been in contact with local fishing boats in the Sea of Japan, a cargo ship that was on its way to South Korea, and two planes that were scheduled to fly from Tottori’s Yonago Kitaro Airport for South Korea and Hong Kong. All were confirmed safe.

Over the past few weeks, Tottori has been making stronger efforts to strengthen its response whenever news arrives that a missile has been launched toward the Sea of Japan. By the end of this month, the prefecture plans to have bureaucratic measures in place that will allow its officials to scramble more efficiently if the central government issues a J-Alert warning of a missile approaching Japan.

“We confirmed that fishermen and others were safe, but the prefecture will continue to take measures to ensure local safety,” Tottori Gov. Shinji Hirai said following the May 14 missile launch.

On the other hand, officials in Shiga have been targeted for criticism for coming up with their own response to news of a missile attack.

In late April, Shiga educational authorities sent a notice to prefectural schools and boards of education in cities and towns that called for children to remain indoors in case of a missile attack.

The notice angered the teachers’ unions, which saw it as an overreaction that would just create unease among students who might fear Japan was preparing for war.

At a May 11 meeting to discuss the issue, some mayors told Shiga Prefecture that local notices about how to respond to a missile launch should come from the governor’s office, not from prefectural bureaucrats, and should not be limited to just students.

“Getting the message out to older people quickly is necessary. It’s the governor who must take responsibility for crisis management,” said Yasu Mayor Yoshiaki Yamanaka, who was one of a handful of mayors in Shiga who refused to pass along the April notice from the prefecture to area schools.

Other Kansai prefectures that border the Sea of Japan coast like Hyogo and Kyoto are also reviewing what measures to take at the local level, not only to provide as much advance warning as possible, but also to deal with possibility, however remote, of a missile actually striking their prefecture. But Kyoto Gov. Keiji Yamada says people need to be realistic about what can be done, given how quickly a missile might arrive.

“Testing the J-Alert system and increased cooperation with local officials are things that should be done. But when talking about drills to prepare for an attack, as a missile might arrive in only about five minutes, there’s not much more that can be done except take shelter underground. It would be different if there was a one- or two-hour advance notice (of an incoming missile),” Yamada said last month at a regular press briefing.

Kansai Perspective appears on the fourth Monday of each month, focusing on Kansai-area developments and events of national importance with a Kansai connection.