Drowning in noise

While Japan waited anxiously Saturday to see whether North Korea would launch its rocket, the day ended up being notable for the defense ministry’s mistakenly informing the public not once but twice that launch had occurred.

Yomiuri has the details on how the public came to be misinformed. The first mistake, which occurred around 10am Saturday, resulted from a computer glitch at the GSDF command center in Tokyo, which resulted in some 900 JSDF personnel receiving emails announcing that a launch had been detected, including one GSDF officer in Akita, who proceeded to inform local authorities of the launch. The second mistake, at around noon, was the result of a misunderstanding by the Air Self-Defense Forces officer responsible for missile defense, who thought that a report received from air defense command in Tokyo was based on information from US early warning satellites, when in fact it came from a J/FPS-5 radar station in Chiba that had detected “some kind of wake.” The ASDF officer informed the Kantei’s crisis management center, which then informed the media and some local governments via its M-net system.

Geoffrey Forden has more about the Chiba station and another station in Shimonoseki. As for the Chiba station, Yomiuri reports that its location poses some difficulty due to the Japan Alps lying between Chiba and North Korea. Due to geography, the radar is detecting with a 4-6 degree angle of elevation, which apparently prevented the station from tracking North Korea’s 2006 missile launches, which were about 100 kilometers too low. But as Yomiuri notes, the mistake had less to do with the radar than with human error: neither the ASDF officer who received the report nor the defense ministry’s central command post confirmed that the information had come from US spy satellites. They ought to have been suspicious, because reportedly an alarm would sound when data was received from the US — and beyond that, they could have checked on a US-Japan computer system for sharing information.

The result was confusion and alarm in localities throughout Japan. Apparently the public is paying more attention to the government’s extensive and visible preparations than to its messages telling the public to remain calm and minimizing the danger of falling debris. To some degree, the confusion was the result of over-preparedness. In their desire to deliver information to the public has swiftly as possible, local governments have neglected safeguards that would check for accuracy before issuing announcements. The speed with which corrections were issued caused further confusion.

The government was quick to apologize for the mistakes, and continued to stress its readiness — and urged the Japanese people to carry on with their daily lives. But yesterday’s follies will likely dog the government for weeks and months to come.

On Saturday afternoon, Hatoyama Yukio, DPJ secretary-general, criticized the government for needlessly alarming the public, sentiments echoed by the JCP, SDPJ, and PNP. The government also faced criticism from within the governing coalition. I have already mentioned Komeito’s rapid-fire criticism, which was echoed by LDP members. As an unnamed LDP defense zoku with cabinet experience said: “As this has made Japan’s troubles with its crisis management capabilities public, it’s extremely unpleasant.”

Yomiuri’s anonymous zoku giin alludes to an important point, namely that both the Japanese government and the Japanese people are not prepared for this sort of thing, despite their experience with disaster preparedness. How often have the JSDF personnel responsible for handling and conveying information received from Japanese radar sites and US satellites drilled for a missile launch? And this is a situation in which North Korea has provided a launch window. Would the JSDF be ready in the event of a contingency on the Korean Peninsula which resulted in missiles being launched at Japan unannounced? It is fortunate that the errors were on the side of overcaution, but, of course, there’s always the danger that these mistakes will result in the “boy who cried wolf” syndrome.

In that sense, Japan should be thankful that North Korea is stress testing Japan’s national emergency response system. Of course, the Aso government won’t see it that way, as I suspect that in the aftermath of Saturday’s fiasco the DPJ will use its control of the upper house to launch an inquiry into what precisely went wrong and perhaps the Aso government’s handling of the launch more generally. The last thing the government had hoped for when going all out in its preparations for the launch would be comments from the public wondering how these mistakes happened “despite Japan’s high technology.” But I hope — and the Japanese people should hope — that a public inquiry into Saturday’s events reveals precisely what went wrong in the JSDF and the defense ministry, and offers recommendations for improving Japan’s ability to respond to national security emergencies. Hopefully Saturday’s mistakes also reinvigorate the process of defense ministry reform, as the ministry has shown once again that its information handling skills are gravely deficient.

Undoubtedly the Aso government must be hoping that North Korea launches its rocket on Sunday, that information about the launch is received, processed, and disseminated seamlessly, and that no debris falls in Japan’s direction. Saturday’s mishaps may have been enough to halt the rally the Aso government has enjoyed lately; further mishaps could send Aso’s approval ratings back into the single digits.

And in the midst of all the focus on North Korea, Ozawa Ichiro must be breathing a sigh of relief now that the media’s gaze has shifted elsewhere. Suddenly there are more important concerns than whether Ozawa and his secretary knew that they were receiving dirty money from a construction company.

One thought on “Drowning in noise

  1. Anonymous

    I heard that NHK updated the status of the rocket very frequently during their live report. Did this show the capability of their radar ?


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