The wail of the emergency siren reverberates across the school’s playing field, conjuring a primal fear even before the words “Missile launched! Missile launched!” crackle over the loudspeaker. Two dozen men, women and children—many wearing bonnets and wet neck towels against the blazing sunshine—scamper across the shingle expanse before squatting down low with arms covering heads.
“We haven’t got a nuclear shelter or even strong buildings, so this is all we can do,” says Nakamura Takashi, an official of Sakura City in Japan’s central Tochigi Prefecture, who helped to organize the missile defense drill at the local Kamimatsuyama Elementary School on Sept. 10. “The government says you have a much higher survival rate if you crouch rather than stand up.”
Pyongyang’s relentless pursuit of a nuclear arsenal capable of striking the continental U.S. has caused outrage in Washington, provoking U.S. President Donald Trump to threaten to “totally destroy” North Korea in response. But it is Japan that lies on the nuclear front line.
North Korea loathes Japan because of its colonization of the Korean peninsula prior to World War II. While North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has more than 1,000 pieces of conventional artillery pointing at South Korea, the 22 ballistic missiles his regime has tested since February have all been fired toward Japan, whose capital Tokyo lies just 800 miles from Pyongyang.
“The four islands of the [Japanese] archipelago should be sunken into the sea by the nuclear bomb of Juche,” Pyongyang said in a Sept. 14 statement. (Juche is the ideology of socialist self-reliance pioneered by Kim Il-sung, the country’s founder and grandfather of the current Kim.) Japan, Pyongyang said, no longer needs “to exist near us.”
The last missile to fly at Japan was on Sept. 15, following an earlier one on Aug. 29. Both flew over the northern island of Hokkaido before splashing into the Pacific Ocean. They set off sirens across huge swaths of the country, including those at Sakura, a rice-farming community of 44,000 people a couple of hours’ drive north of Tokyo. Smartphone alerts beeped in unison and television stations suddenly cut to an ominous black screen with bold, white script warning of a possible missile attack. For the few minutes, until the all-clear signal sounded, residents wondered whether their world was about to end.
“It was scary,” says kindergarten teacher Atsuko Murakami, 44, who took part in the missile defense drill. “I just huddled together at home with my two young daughters watching the TV for updates.”
The threat has spurred the Japanese government to raise public preparedness. Schools have been instructed to conduct missile defense training alongside regular safety drills. Local authorities across the country have followed suit. Japan’s Fishery Agency even has plans to introduce, by next year, an alert system for fishing vessels that could be struck by a ditching missile.
Japanese fears have grown more acute after North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test on Sept. 2. The 120-kiloton explosion was around eight times the ferocity of the bombs that devastated the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. Nuclear fallout is no hypothetical peril for Japan’s 126 million people, and certainly not in Sakura, which lies just 75 miles (120 km) from the Fukushima nuclear plant that went into meltdown following an earthquake and tsunami in 2011. Sakura was evacuated after that catastrophe and people still worry about radiation contamination in local crops.
Japan’s propensity for severe seismic activity means disaster preparedness is treated with the utmost seriousness. The threat from North Korea has heightened these existing concerns. Other than the missile drills, people in Sakura practice crawling through a smoke-filled tent, get shaken around an earthquake simulation chamber, and, in the event that stairs are destroyed, learn how to abseil, practicing on the façade of the white, three-story school building. Volunteers hand out steaming bowls of miso soup brimming with pork belly and root vegetables. Continue reading.