TOKYO — Waking up to a North Korean missile launch has become distressingly routine for residents of Japan this year. But until Tuesday the missiles were splashing down in the Sea of Japan, albeit sometimes uncomfortably close to the coastline. This time, the missile flew over the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido before falling in three pieces into the Pacific Ocean, according to official reports. It was the first time Pyongyang had shot a ballistic missile over Japan itself, although it sent satellite launch vehicles over the country’s main islands in 1998 and 2009.
What will Japan do now? Shinzo Abe is arguably the most hawkish prime minister that Japan has had in the postwar era. All of his political instincts demand that North Korean defiance be met with a stern and uncompromising response. But he has already been in this very same position many times before — and none of the responses have worked. This time around, Japan is all out of choices, and Abe’s hawkish boasts are looking increasingly hollow.
North Korean missile launches are beginning to impinge on Japanese daily lives in a way in which they never did in the past. During Tuesday morning’s launch, the J-Alert system was activated throughout the nation’s 12 northernmost prefectures, meaning that a fearful public siren startled people awake just after 6 a.m. and mobile phones screamed out dire warnings that missiles could be raining down upon them at any moment. Many train services were halted until the alert was lifted.
The mobile phone alerts counseled people to immediately flee to basements — a rarity in Japan’s overcrowded housing blocks. As many residents commented on social media, there’s really nowhere to run and nothing much to be done when a missile alert arrives. Most people understand that civil defense measures of this sort are about as likely to be effective in the event of nuclear warfare as the old U.S. injunctions to “duck and cover.” That feeling of…