By: Todd Crowell

Japan awoke Wednesday to television news and civil defense instructions to take cover in secure buildings or underground as a North Korean ballistic missile passed over parts of Hokkaido before landing in open sea.

“Missile Passing, Missile Passing,” screamed a public service announcement. Commuters faced train delays even as far away as Tokyo. “All lines are experiencing disruptions. Reason: a ballistic missile launch,” said the train station announcement.

At an impromptu press conference, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said of the missile program: “It is the biggest threat to Japan “ever,” apparently forgetting momentarily World War II.

The frequency of North Korean nuclear weapons and missile tests and their growing sophistication is prompting the Japanese public to think carefully about ways to protect themselves should Pyongyang actually launch a missile at Japan.

Tokyo activated its J-Alert warning system providing warnings on television screens, mobile phones and loudspeakers but may have created more confusion. Told to seek shelter in secure buildings, many had no idea where to go.

And they had very little time. The Intermediate-range missile launched from a site near Pyongyang just before 6 am was passing through Japanese air space about 10 minutes later. From start to finish the rocket’s flight to the north Pacific took about 15 minutes.

The older generation remembers taking cover in bomb shelters during heavy American bombing raids during the last years of World War II. But the idea of civil defense is completely foreign to younger Japanese.

Some communities have held air raid drills, taking school children into gymnasiums and telling them to kneel down and put their hands over their heads, scenes taken directly out of civil defense exercises in the US during the Cold War.

School is out for the summer so there have been relatively few classroom drills, but the principal maker of nuclear fallout shelters is doing a bang-up business. For years making fallout shelters was a small niche industry aimed primarily at customers worried about nuclear power plant accidents.

Earth Shift manager Akira Shiga says his company usually got only about one query a week, but now gets 10-30 on a normal business day. Protection doesn’t come cheaply. One new underground fallout shelter can cost the equivalent of US$250,000.

A much cheaper alternative is air purifiers, which makers say can provide some protection against radiation even in ordinary houses. An air purifier can cost as little as US$6,000.

The multiple meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi plant six years ago actually gave the authorities some lessons in civil defense. The government has expanded J-Alert to a system of sending out warning messages including earthquake warnings and nuclear power plant mishaps.

First tested in 2007, J-Alert involves sending out a warning signal to be received by local governments, which in turn warn the public to take shelter through loudspeakers and television messages.

For now the emerging civil defense system is mainly limited to smaller towns along the guided missile coast. Nobody has devised a system that can provide bomb shelters or handle the evacuation for the 37 million people in greater Tokyo.

Critics say that these communities are over-reacting. Tokyo Metro, which runs the extensive subway system in the capital, came under criticism last April when the whole commuter system shutdown for 10 minutes because of news that the North was planning a missile launch.

The first time North Korea fired a missile directly over Japan was in 1998. The North fired a long-range rocket directly across northern Honshu in an effort to launch an earth-orbiting satellite. This first one failed in its mission, falling harmlessly into the northern Pacific Ocean.

(Japan did not attempt to destroy the most recent rocket over Hokkaido after it determined it did not directly threaten Japan, said defense minister Itsunori Onodera.)

Recently, Pyongyang has been testing more sophisticated missiles, letting them fall inside Japan’s 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the Sea of Japan opposite Akita, Yamaguchi and Niigata prefectures.

These tests have been made without any warnings to local inhabitants or to any shipping or airliners that might have been transiting the Sea of Japan at that time. It is not illegal to fire missiles into EEZ waters, but some might think they come too close.

The two tests of a missile able purportedly able to reach the United States that were lunched in July did not threaten Japan specifically, even though both rockets landed within Japan’s 200-mile zone, the sixth and seventh long-range missiles to do so.

More recently, the North Korean Central News Agency declared that Kim Jong-un was considering a plan to fire a salvo of four intermediate range missiles in the direction of Guam, home for big American air force and submarine bases.

It specifically indicated that the missiles would overfly Shimane, Hiroshima and Kochi prefectures. The governors of the three prefectures, including a fourth, Ehime, not mentioned in Kim’s order, called on the government to protect citizens from missile debris.

“We’ve been singled out by the North,” complained, Shimane governor Zenbe Mizoguchi after meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who told him that the “government’s biggest responsibility is to protect the lives of our citizens.”.

Others say that the Abe administration is hyping the danger specifically in order to justify increases in the defense budgets and the controversial decision to amend the pacifistic constitution or to re-interpret the document to permit “collective defense” or ability to help an ally or friend under attack.