Tokyo struggles to get its message right
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.
The twin false alarms triggered in early April have been covered extensively by the Japanese press as well as by Asia Times Online (See Swine flu tests confidence in China, Japan, May 8, 2009).
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 point.
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 revisited.
Consider these responses from Press Secretary Sadaaki Numata during a Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) press briefing on September 1, 1998. 
Question: There was no ability to track this missile given the Japanese Government's existing capabilities?
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 news.
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 proportion.
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 Japan.
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.
1. False Alarm Sounded Saturday in Japan over North Korean Missile Launch VOA, April 4, 2004.
2. US 'didn't give Japan advance N-test intel' Yomiuri Shimbun, May 27, 2009.
3. US Relations With the People's Republic of China (2009) U.S. Department of State.
4. Press Conference by the Press Secretary, September 1, 1998. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan.
Peter J Brown is a freelance writer from Maine USA.