National | VIEW FROM OSAKA

Kansai takes measured view on missile drills

by Eric Johnston

STAFF WRITER

Over the past two months, hardly a week has passed without news of another North Korean missile launch. It’s become routine: An early morning South Korean media report, based on government sources, says that “an object has been launched,” forcing politicians, bureaucrats, and journalists in Tokyo out of bed. Groggy and red-eyed, they head to their ministries, agencies, offices and press clubs to man their stations and wait for developments. They return home only after confirming the missile has landed somewhere in the Sea of Japan.

Inevitably, what follows is a stream of warnings and angry denunciations by the prime minister, the chief Cabinet secretary and the defense minister. A parade of commentary on North Korea, East Asia or the U.S. military also fills the airwaves and newspapers with speculation on what happens next, some of it informed, much of it not.

Whatever the odds are of people in Japan actually being injured or killed by an incoming missile, journalists and politicians get the chance to sound serious and concerned and issue dire warnings. But the recent rush by small towns in parts of the country to hold evacuation drills for an incoming missile has been greeted in Kansai with skepticism about their purpose and effectiveness.

Kyoto Gov. Keiji Yamada has questioned such drills, given it could take as little as seven minutes between the time official news of a missile launch is confirmed and the time it strikes Japan. Others, such as Fukui Gov. Issei Nishikawa, have spoken about the need for the central government to do more in terms of rapid communication with local governments when news of a missile launch is confirmed. But Fukui towns have yet to hold their own evacuation drills.

These reactions are interesting because Fukui Prefecture is home to the nation’s, and one of the world’s, largest concentration of nuclear power plants. Maizuru, on the northern edge of Kyoto Prefecture, is the only major Sea of Japan base for the Maritime Self-Defense Force. Kyogamisaki, located north of Maizuru, is a sub-base of the Air Self-Defense Force and the location of a X-band radar facility that was set up specifically to track inbound ballistic missiles. One would assume both locations, especially Maizuru, would be fairly high on North Korea’s list of possible missile targets.

Then there is neighboring Fukui Prefecture. An attack on Fukui’s 14 nuclear reactors by North Korea has been the stuff of social media speculation, fiction writing, local assembly discussions and, since the attacks in the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2011, some concern on the part of U.S. and Japanese officials. But Fukui’s cities and towns hosting the reactors have not aggressively pushed to hold local evacuation drills based on scenarios of a North Korean missile attack.

Various explanations have been offered in the Kansai media for local governments outside the region deciding to hold evacuation drills. Some say the Tohoku area prefectures feel they are closer to the dangers emanating from North Korea than western Japan.

Others have suggested the small towns conducting the drills aren’t really that scared of being in the path of an incoming missile. The towns also know very well they would have little time to effectively prepare. But the drills offer an excuse for residents to participate in a community event, a kind of local festival involving old friends, family and neighbors. They also note that because such towns are small, it takes authorities less time and effort to organize such drills.

Whatever the reasons, Kansai area governments, starting with Kyoto and Fukui, are keeping calm and carrying on compared to local governments elsewhere. So far, most Kansai leaders appear unconvinced that holding missile evacuation drills are practical, necessary, or anything other than a waste of time and local finances.

View from Osaka is a monthly column that examines the latest news from a Kansai perspective.