National / Media | MEDIA MIX

Public questions Japan's duck and cover drills

by Philip Brasor

On July 7, during a public assembly in Takahama, Fukui Prefecture, Shunichi Tanaka, head of Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority, was asked how his organization would respond to a North Korean missile attack. Tanaka replied that it would make more sense for North Korea to hit Tokyo with a missile than “drop it on a small (nuclear) reactor.” Though meant as a joke, the comment was condemned by many, including the environmental minister, who is basically Tanaka’s boss. Tanaka apologized.

In its July 11 edition, Tokyo Shimbun did not mention the remark, but it did reference the late journalist Yuyu Kiryu’s similarly dismissive attitude toward civil defense schemes in 1933, in an article about a safety drill that took place in Saijo, Ehime Prefecture on July 10. The reporters related how sirens blared and students at an elementary school, who were outside at the time, immediately ran into the gymnasium, crouched on the floor and put their arms over their heads. At a community center, seniors were weeding the grounds. They, too, ran indoors. The whole thing lasted 10 minutes.

Tokyo Shimbun talked to participants and found that many, while understanding the purpose of the drills, didn’t seem to think they would be effective in the event of a real North Korean missile attack. “There would be no perfectly safe place,” one community organizer admitted. “And asking us to evacuate just causes confusion.”

A good portion of the residents did not participate at all, apparently, either because they were busy with other things or just didn’t see the point.

“I might have taken part if there were a bomb shelter,” a 69-year-old woman said, “But hiding in a school or community center makes no sense. Shouldn’t we first make an effort to avoid a war?”

Saijo volunteered to host a drill when the Cabinet Office solicited local governments to hold them. In June another small city, Tsubame, Niigata Prefecture, carried one out. A city assembly member told Tokyo Shimbun, “Why do we have to do this? I don’t think North Korea is interested in our town.”

Tokyo Shimbun speculates that the government wants to create a mood of crisis in order to justify its increase in defense spending. Another reason might be to distract the public from the scandals dogging the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Jiro Ishimaru of Asia Press told the newspaper that the administration exploits North Korean threats to shore up the Cabinet’s support rate, though he believes the drills may have backfired since a good portion of the public doesn’t see their value unless they are done in big cities like Tokyo or near U.S. military installations, which he says are more likely targets.

But the government is thinking about those people, too. Most Japanese have learned about safety measures through conventional media — broadcasting, print and the internet. In late June, 43 commercial TV stations started airing a public service announcement with instructions in the event of an attack. The government also bought advertisements in 70 newspapers and boosted the status for its related website in browser searches. In all, the Cabinet Office spent ¥360 million on missile preparedness PR.

All of this was before North Korea launched what many believe was its first inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) on July 4, a move experts say is a game-changer and thus could be seen as justifying the government’s move to educate the public. But as professor Shunji Hiraiwa of Nanzan University told Tokyo Shimbun, while the North’s technology has obviously improved, missiles that can strike Japan were developed there a long time ago. The emergence of an North Korean ICBM doesn’t change Japan’s security status, which isn’t assured because its anti-missile defense structure isn’t reliable. Japan’s only plausible solution to the problem, he thinks, is diplomacy.

This opinion was echoed by Ukeru Magosaki, a former ambassador to Iran, during a recent discussion on the website of the Independent Web Journal. He said that even if North Korea launched missiles with conventional warheads, the government’s instructions would be useless. Iran bombarded Iraq with North Korea-made missiles during the Iran-Iraq War, and Magosaki understands firsthand there’s no way to prepare for such an attack. Being inside a building is no guarantee unless the building has no windows. It’s the flying glass that kills. Magosaki says the government obviously has “limited understanding” of the consequences of a missile attack.

But maybe the Cabinet Office’s reasons for the PR are different from what people think they are. In an article posted July 5, the web magazine News Post 7 ventured that the PR strategy has more to do with courting the media than with informing — or even alarming — the public. Since becoming prime minister for the second time in 2012, Abe has regularly wined and dined top executives of the major dailies and TV networks, including those of his bete noir, Asahi Shimbun. More significantly, he has overseen huge budgets for government ad campaigns. The missile counter-measure program is only one of them. In 2012, the Democratic Party of Japan, the ruling party at the time, spent ¥4.1 billion on PR. In Abe’s second year after his return, he spent ¥6.5 billion, mainly to push the new consumption tax. In 2015 it was ¥8.3 billion, and this year it should top ¥9 billion.

The only press criticism of the missile preparedness PR program comes from Tokyo Shimbun and other nonmainstream media, because the government doesn’t buy ads from them.

Journalists who discussed the News Post 7 article on the web news program DemocraTV insisted the campaign is incoherent, but with ad revenue shrinking, major media are happy to take the government’s money, they said, and a happy media is what the government wants, especially when the Abe administration eventually starts publicizing the referendum for changing the Constitution. News Post 7 estimates that campaign will be worth billions of yen in ad revenue. The media, apparently, is already counting on it.

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