Defense Perspective: In the field / Govt accelerates work on civil protection system

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Residents take shelter in the Esashi Fire Department building in a drill premised on a missile launch on Oct. 24 in Esashi, Hokkaido.

This is the fifth and last installment in a series monitoring ongoing international developments and identifying necessary tasks if Japan were to become embroiled in a contingency.


After the sound of a wailing siren, an announcement from a fire department’s loudspeaker echoed over the town of Esashi, Hokkaido. “A missile is believed to have been launched. Please evacuate to a building or underground.”

Hearing the call, nearly 20 residents evacuated to the building that houses the Esashi Fire Department and sat down in a central first-floor corridor where there were no windows facing outside to protect themselves from a possible blast.

“The Esashi Fire Department is reporting that they have received a 119 call.”

“The Hokkaido government is making emergency contact.”

Officials responsible for disaster response at the town’s general affairs department were busy communicating with organizations concerned.

On Oct. 24, the Esashi town office conducted an evacuation drill on the premise of a ballistic missile flying over Hokkaido and Aomori Prefecture. Twenty days before the drill, a ballistic missile launched by North Korea really had flown over Aomori Prefecture.

One participant in the drill was an 89-year-old woodworker who said that he had experienced the end of World War II in Karafuto (now Sakhalin in Russia) when he was a child and had run away from the incoming Soviet military forces. “It’s crucial to know where to evacuate in an emergency,” he emphasized.

The fire department building is designated as a temporary emergency evacuation facility for residents to protect themselves from a blast. However, the building has no basement, which is considered a more protective place to take shelter. Esashi Mayor Yonosuke Terui said, “For small municipalities with few underground spaces, it is difficult to secure evacuation facilities.”

Of 94,125 evacuation facilities designated under the Civil Protection Law across the country, only 1,278, or 1.36%, are underground. With a possible nuclear attack in mind, the government is accelerating efforts to develop and improve evacuation shelters.

To be better prepared, changing the awareness of residents and municipalities is also essential.

Given the behavior of North Korea, the government has been conducting resident evacuation drills premised on a ballistic missile launch since September. The government has been seeking municipalities willing to conduct such drills, but only nine municipalities have actually implemented them so far, including the town of Esashi.

On Nov. 30, a drill was held on Okinawa Prefecture’s Yonaguni Island, where residents are increasingly concerned about a possible emergency in Taiwan. It was the first drill of this kind held by a municipality in the prefecture. “We would like to properly explain the need for such drills so they will be held in municipalities across the country,” a Cabinet Secretariat official in charge said.

The J-Alert national instantaneous warning system, meant to alert the public to missile launches and other emergencies, also has issues. When a missile launched by North Korea flew over Aomori Prefecture on Oct. 4, the disaster radio system used to communicate the J-Alert information to residents did not work and other troubles occurred in Eniwa, Shinhidaka, Teshio and Rishiri in Hokkaido, as well as Aomori City and Hirakawa in Aomori Prefecture. In the town of Esashi, the fire department sounded a siren to warn residents to evacuate, but some residents later said that they had not heard it because they were indoors. To remedy that, the town is considering distributing receivers to individual houses.

Regular drills are vital for civil protection, including the evacuation of civilians in the event of an emergency, to function properly.

On Nov. 14, the Ground Self-Defense Force Northern Army conducted a civil protection exercise premised on an armed attack at Camp Sapporo in Sapporo. The GSDF confirmed its ability to work with the Hokkaido prefectural government, the prefectural police and relevant municipalities to evacuate residents in the event of three different types of attacks — invasion by air or sea, ballistic missile attack, and attack by guerrilla groups or special forces. The Self-Defense Forces hold such drills about five times a year.

The SDF is widely expected to lead the evacuation of residents, but they also have to concentrate on dealing with armed attacks, so they might not be able to help with evacuations if the time comes.

Also, even if private airlines or shipping companies agree to help out with such tasks as evacuating residents from remote islands, many people presume that private aircraft and ships would have difficulty reaching such islands once an armed attack begins.

Under the current system, the implementation of civil protection measures requires the declaration of an armed attack situation and other procedures, prompting concern that urgent action could be delayed.

While the prime minister and Cabinet members participate in drills for natural disasters every year, civil protection drills involving Cabinet members or other high-ranking government officials have not been conducted so far.

On Nov. 16, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner Komeito held a meeting of their working group on the revision of three key national documents including the government’s National Security Strategy. Many participants said civil protection plans should be reviewed, with such comments as: “We have the Civil Protection Law, but I wonder if we can actually implement it” and “We need a system to evacuate citizens before declaring an armed attack situation.”

Ryoichi Oriki, former chief of staff of the Joint Staff of the SDF, who was the top SDF officer in the response to the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011, said: “The timing of civil protection measures is a major issue. If the measures are delayed, some people will fail to evacuate and be left behind. We should carefully carry out simulations, including how to evacuate residents.”

In Ukraine, Russian forces continue to attack urban areas, harshly illuminating the importance of a civil protection system. The urgent task for the government is to enhance defense capabilities to increase Japan’s deterrence to avoid a war while assuming worst-case scenarios and promoting measures to protect the lives of the people.