Tokyo: “Missile launched. It appears a missile has been launched. Please evacuate to a sturdy building or underground,” the loudspeaker blared over the town, silencing the children who had been playing in the schoolyard and drowning out the sound of the water trickling alongside the rice paddies.
Older residents streamed into the concrete community center, while the children at the neighboring elementary school hit the ground outside where they were playing, some covering their heads.
Sakata, a sleepy city of 100,000 on Japan’s northwestern coast, sits just 665 miles across the sea from North Korea, and many of the missiles that Kim Jong Un’s regime has been launching have landed not far from this coast, within Japan’s exclusive economic zone.
While Kim has repeatedly stated that he wants an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the U.S. mainland, and while he has made observable progress toward that goal, his rocket scientists are not there yet.
North Korea is, however, able to hit Japan. One of the new missiles that North Korea fired last month had a technical range of 2,800 miles, easily putting all of Japan and even the U.S. territory of Guam within reach. (North Korea fired a missile over Japan in 1998.)
That has residents here worrying for the squid fishermen who ply this coast – and for themselves.
“Sakata faces the Sea of Japan, so it’s important to think about how to protect ourselves in case of an incoming North Korean missile,” Itaru Maruyama, the mayor of Sakata, said after the city held its first missile preparedness drill Friday. “We’ve trained for various disasters but not for a missile.”
Japanese are used to drills for earthquakes and tsunamis, but the prime minister’s office issued new “actions to protect yourself” guidelines in April, including instructions on how to respond if a North Korean ballistic missile is heading toward Japan. It marked the first time since the end of World War II that the Japanese government has instructed citizens on what to do if they come under enemy attack.
The advice is limited to basically going inside or underground – there’s not much else people can do, especially not since they would have only minutes to do it.
In Tokyo, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party presented the prime minister with a plan Thursday to protect people from North Korean missiles. Among other things, it called for building shelters and evacuating Japanese citizens living in South Korea.
“With North Korea continuing to ignore the international community and launching missiles, we must do everything we can to protect the public,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said in response.
As if to underline the threat, North Korea launched another salvo of missiles Thursday, although they were only cruise missiles rather than the usual ballistic ones.
The threat of North Korea feels very real on this coast, and several regional authorities have organized similar practices.
About 400 residents took part in Friday’s exercise in Sakata, practicing what to do if satellites detect a ballistic missile launched from “Country X” flying toward Japan. In addition to triggering cellphone alarms, alerts will blare from loudspeakers already used for earthquake and tsunami warnings.
Residents would have only minutes to evacuate to safety because the missile would take only about 10 minutes after launch to reach Japan, and some of that time would be spent alerting local authorities.
After a siren started sounding the warning during the drill on Friday, a group of senior citizens who had been waiting patiently in a side alley began walking quickly toward the community center, cautioning each other to be careful not to fall and hurt themselves. The children playing on the school field followed their teacher’s instructions and ducked down. In the rice paddies and fields around the area, people sheltered in place.
“I feel fortunate that this is happening here so we will be prepared if a missile is coming toward us,” said Mitsuharu Suzuki, a 67-year-old company worker who remembers when three North Korean spies came ashore in the area in 1973. “We face North Korea across the Sea of Japan, so we always feel tense.”
Sachiko Kaneko, a 69-year-old housewife who also took part, agreed. “The missiles come so often, so I feel very worried,” she said.
After the exercise was over, Mayor Maruyama congratulated everyone on a drill well done.
“Kids, you did a great job at escaping. It made you nervous, right?” he said to the rows of children lined up in the school gym. “Remember this experience and think about it during your school years.”
The local fire chief came on next to describe what a missile would look like. He got a girl who was 53 inches tall to stand up to show everyone the width of the missile and the length of the warhead – and the children started to look slightly terrified. “I hope a missile doesn’t come here,” one said to her friends afterward.
Down at the port, fishermen who did not take part in the drill said they were also worried.
“It’s really scary because we have no idea where missiles might fall,” said Kiyoshi Sugimoto, who works on a squid fishing boat based farther up the coast. He was once out on this sea when he heard that a North Korean missile had landed within Japan’s economic zone, and he wanted to turn back.
“They can tell us that a missile has been launched, but what are we supposed to do about it? We can’t run away,” he said as he sat on the ground smoking. He asked whether more missiles would be coming.
Shizuka Yamashina, a 75-year-old retired farmer, said the tensions with North Korea were the worst he could remember.
“I heard that North Korea wants Japan to go up in flames, because we are allies of America,” Yamashina said as he and a friend fished on a dock, pulling in a bunch of minnows that they fed to the seagulls. “I want the United States to restrain North Korea.”
Residents on the coast feel so vulnerable, he said, that at a recent drinking party with his friends he gave a toast hoping that a North Korean missile does not land here.
“I hope that we can have talks with North Korea and calm down the situation rather than use military force,” Yamashina said, “because right now we have no idea what they might do.”