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Can Japanese subway system work as a bomb shelter in time of war?

  • April 30, 2022
  • , Nikkei Asia , 12:07 p.m.
  • English Press

Invasion of Ukraine highlights nation’s unpreparedness for crisis


Nikkei staff writers


TOKYO — Subways in Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv stopped operations following the launch of attacks by Russian troops. Stations, as deep as 105 meters underground, became temporary bomb shelters as citizens brought in blankets and tents to protect themselves from Russia’s threat of nuclear attack.


Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in an interview with CNN that “all of the countries of the world” should be prepared for the possibility that Russian President Vladimir Putin could use nuclear weapons in his war on Ukraine.


The war has shown the international community that any country can suddenly become a field of battle. Japan, located next to Russia, China and North Korea, is no exception.


Subway systems in Japan are among the most advanced in the world, and people ride them more often than in most other countries. The systems are still growing, and in many major cities are connected to underground shopping malls, maximizing the use of space in crowded urban areas. But whether Japanese can use them as shelters is open to question.


Most subway stations in Japan are unsuitable as shelters because they lie at a shallow depth. “Tokyo has only a limited number of facilities that can be safe shelters, such as stations on the Toei Oedo Line that lie more than 40 meters underground,” said Mitsuru Fukuda, professor of risk management at Nihon University.


Facilities designated by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government for use as shelters in case Japan is attacked include no subway stations. Although some other local governments, such as the prefecture of Osaka, do include subway stations among their designated shelters, none are deeper than 30 meters. In short, Japan does not have subways running as deep under the ground as those in Ukraine.


In the 2017 election for the House of Representatives, the governing Liberal Democratic Party adopted the first-ever campaign pledge to “secure emergency shelters by making use of existing underground space in addition to the reinforcement of underground shelters.” But momentum toward the prompt construction of underground facilities resistant to blasts from nuclear and other explosions has failed to grow.


There were 51,994 robust concrete facilities for temporary emergency evacuation across Japan as of April 2021, according to the Cabinet Secretariat. They included only 1,278 subway stations and other underground facilities. In the capital’s Shinjuku Ward, which contains the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, the Ministry of Defense and many other key offices staffed with a large number of workers, there are no underground escape facilities.


The lack of preparedness is not limited to evacuation facilities. Although in 2017, 29 local governments started drills for the evacuation of residents in case of a missile attack from North Korea, no drills have been held since June 2018, on the grounds that the summit meeting between South and North Korea that year has eased the crisis.


Yet now, four years later, North Korea again is repeatedly test-firing missiles. China has continued its military buildup and, according to the U.S. Department of Defense, now possesses more than 1,250 medium-range ballistic missiles. The Japanese government on April 15 announced the resumption of evacuation drills for the first time in four years but has yet to decide when to conduct them.


There also are concerns from a legal standpoint. What could Japan do, for example, if faced with precursors to war like those observed before Russia launched attacks on Ukraine? In the event of a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan, it is highly likely that Chinese forces would mass in waters near Taiwan and that the U.S. would dispatch troops to surrounding areas on a large scale.


In such a case, the maneuvering of U.S. troops in Japan would be restricted by the U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement. Many officials in the Japanese government consider that American military planes can use commercial airports for takeoff and landing, but it is difficult to interpret the accord as permitting the U.S. to use commercial airports as bases.


Japan’s Self-Defense Forces are allowed to provide logistic support to the U.S. military only if a situation is recognized as directly threatening Japan’s peace and security — a possible armed attack on Japan — in accordance with security-related laws. But such support would be difficult to justify at a stage when U.S. and Chinese forces were just beginning to gather.


Is it possible for Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense with other nations? Legally, doing so must meet the standard that Japan is in an “existential” crisis in which an armed attack against “a foreign state that is in a close relationship with Japan” threatens Japan’s survival. If, therefore, the U.S. is attacked by China, Japan may be able to exercise this right.


But it is a different matter whether Japan could exercise the right if Taiwan were attacked. Beijing treats Taiwan as part of mainland China under its “One China” principle, and Japan does not recognize Taiwan as a sovereign state.


The legal underpinnings to, for instance, evacuate residents from the islands of Sakishima, which might be enmeshed in a Taiwan emergency, are also unsolid. The civil protection law, which allows the mandatory evacuation of citizens through restrictions on certain private rights invoked by the central and local governments, is applicable only when an armed attack is expected. Recent events have also underscored how Japan has no law allowing for the acceptance of refugees from Ukraine in significant numbers.


“Japan’s system of law is unable to catch up with changes in international environments and forms of warfare,” said Kiyofumi Iwata, a former chief of staff of the Ground Self-Defense Force, noting delays in legal preparedness for electronic and cyber warfare.


Deliberations on military affairs have been somewhat taboo in postwar Japan. The Japan Socialist Party, which long was the biggest opposition party, finally recognized the Self-Defense Forces as constitutional 40 years after their establishment. The change of stance became necessary largely because the head of the party, Tomiichi Murayama, became prime minister.


In discussing security, Japan has been traditionally criticized as shutting its eyes on worst-case scenarios and refusing to act until the necessity arises. With the Ukraine crisis having aroused even the possibility of nuclear war, there will be no greater opportunity than now for Japan to advance preparations for an emergency.

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