Tokyo struggles to get its message right
By Peter J Brown
Japan is caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, North Korea
has increased tensions and put Japan on the defensive with its multiple missile
tests and a nuclear test. On the other hand, the Japanese government is trying
to make sense of its recent false alarms and other deficiencies in the
government's ability to respond to external threats.
"We caused a great deal of trouble to the Japanese people," Defense Minister
Yasukazu Hamada said after a pair of false alarms well before the actual launch
of a North Korean long-range missile on April 5, which ultimately flew over
Japan. "I want to apologize to the people from my heart."
Japan's alert and warning system is not what it should be. For a country that
has poured millions of yen into nationwide systems for natural disasters like
tsunamis and earthquakes, the system failures experienced during the North
Korean missile test in April
are unacceptable. Perhaps they were the result of little more than "human
error", but the systems should be more reliable.
In the end, the residents of Akita prefecture, which is 450 kilometers north of
Tokyo, and the rest of the country were subjected to missile alerts for no
reason other than a stream of erroneous signals. The incorrect signals emanated
first from the Ground Self-Defense Force in Akita and then a radar site in
Chiba prefecture, some 70 kilometers to the northeast of the capital. An
otherwise innocent US missile tracking satellite was also implicated at one
One positive to come out of the chaos was proof that downstream, nationwide and
regional alerts and warnings in Japan can be rapidly transmitted.
But gaps in the verification, acknowledgement and confirmation cycles were huge
and reached all the way to Prime Minister Taro Aso's office. Sure, lots of
people got information quickly, but nobody was able or inclined to confirm that
the information was accurate until well after the buttons were pushed.
While it is easy to dismiss the errors as minor setbacks, the rapid false alarm
sequence cascaded into a near meltdown of the system as a whole.
The Voice of America news service, for example, captured the mood at a regional
government emergency center in Niigata, northwest Japan, where "officials
repeatedly uttered 'mistake, mistake' to spread the word". 
Blame can be cast at the FPS-5 "Gamera" early warning radar system in Chiba, as
the Air Defense Command headquarters in Tokyo has said, but a much broader
segment of the Japanese government must also be held accountable.
Confusion was also apparent after North Korea's nuclear test on May 25. After
an urgent meeting at Japan's Ministry of Defense (MoD) following the test, a
senior member of the Japanese SDF told The Yomiuri Shimbun, "This is the first
time we've had no advance information from the US military regarding North
Korea's missile or nuclear [programs]". 
But at a US Department of State (DoS) briefing on May 28 in Washington, DC, the
following exchange took place. 
Question: What is our
response to claims in the Japanese media that we did not inform them of the
North Korean test after we were contacted by North Korean officials?
Answer: We are aware of Japanese media reports claiming that the
Department of State gave no prior notification to the Government of Japan of
North Korea's nuclear test. The Department of State has received no complaints
from the Government of Japan on this matter.
On May 24 [Washington time] North Korea notified the State Department of its
intention to conduct a nuclear test, without citing specific timing,
approximately one hour prior to the event. The United States immediately
notified the governments of Japan, South Korea, China, and Russia. Secretary
[of State Hillary] Clinton spoke to Japanese Foreign Minister [Hirofumi]
Nakasone about the reported nuclear test and our response early on the morning
of May 25.
The inconsistency is clear, but another, perhaps
larger, problem resulting from this statement is evident. The SDF member's
statement directly contradicts what was said by the Japanese government after a
prior North Korean missile test in 1998. Thus, the Japanese government's
official record of events dating back to the 1998 missile test needs to be
Consider these responses from Press Secretary Sadaaki Numata during a Ministry
of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) press briefing on September 1, 1998. 
There was no ability to track this missile given the Japanese Government's
Numata: I do not think we can track it from the space as it were.
The first information came from the United States sources, perhaps they have
their own way of checking it.
Q: So the Japanese government was informed that a missile was
flying towards Japan by the American government. They had to be told that.
Numata: Not that a missile was flying towards Japan because - I
do not know why I am turning myself into a very shaky missile expert, but it
takes about six minutes for this thing to fly, I heard.
Q: To reach the Japanese.
Numata: To go the full range. As I understand it, the first
information that we received yesterday in the afternoon was that there had -
that is from the Unites States sources - apparently been a missile launch from
the Eastern part of North Korea to the Sea of Japan. I think that was the first
The SDF official's statement merely reinforces the notion
that the MoD and the MoFA are seldom on the same page. In effect, the two
agencies rarely coordinate their efforts effectively, no matter whether
missiles are flying or not. This disjointed approach might be constantly
undermining Japan's crisis management system during critical showdowns with
North Korea, for example.
"The Japanese government is notoriously stove-piped. There is no central
'National Security Council' type of organization in Japan, so sometimes
information is not distributed in a timely fashion," said one Japanese defense
analyst. He added that the August 1998 "Taepodong shock" was blown way out of
The fact is that the Japanese government had been notified in advance of the
launch, according to this analyst. After all, Japan's Maritime Self Defense
Force (MSDF) had started to add Aegis ships to its fleet almost five years
earlier and one was right where it needed to be - on station in the Sea of
Japan when the test took place.
"[They were] forewarned by the US. It was in the optimal spot to watch the
launch for three days, it turned out, since the launch was delayed," said this
analyst. At the time, the MoD had simply "not bothered to notify the [MoFA]".
The comments were made a short time after the May 2009 quote in question
appeared in the Yomiuri Shimbun, and they are not reassuring.
"There is a pro-indigenous development lobby peddling these stories to get
funds for satellites. [The same thing] happened after the 1998 missile launch,"
said Mike Green, senior adviser and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and
International Studies in Washington, DC.
So, is what the Japanese public is confronting purposeful rather than
accidental miscommunication on a widespread and continuing basis? No wonder the
Japanese are rightfully on edge. Or are they? Many would argue that the
Japanese have taken this all in their stride, just as they have accepted the
estimated 80 billion yen (US$811.6 million) that has already been spent on
Japan's missile defense system.
To say that the events of the past two months might have somehow stemmed not
from sloppy execution and mere misinterpretations of the data at hand, but
rather from intentional manipulation of the process is best left to conspiracy
buffs. However, highlighting a pattern of recurring failures to communicate
properly and related weaknesses in Japan's crisis management framework is a
timely pursuit. Why? It ties into the ongoing debate about defense policy in
Collective insecurity in Japan being worsened by faulty crisis management
cannot be detached easily from plans for a major overhaul of Japan's use of
space for national defense purposes, as in Japan's new Basic Space Law. The
"first-strike" option in parallel with the "prompt global strike" option
emerging in the US must also be considered.
While the need for a "nuclear option" in Japan - increasingly popular on
certain US conservative circles in particular - remains relatively off limits
and well beyond the realm of acceptable rhetoric, the fact that it is on the
radar screen at all is reason enough for a reality check.
Japan's crisis management system is on the blink, and another test - along with
the inevitable associated diplomatic crisis - looms. Tokyo needs to reboot the
entire system before it spins out of control.