KETR

In Hokkaido, Being In North Korea's Missile Flight Path Means Cold War-Era Drills

Sep 8, 2017
Originally published on September 8, 2017 8:13 am

North Korea's neighbor of Japan is growing more alarmed by Pyongyang's advancing nuclear program, especially after a North Korean missile flew over the Japanese island of Hokkaido last week. It has led many residents to rethink the threat, even though they acknowledge they're largely powerless in this high-stakes geopolitical tussle.

Millions of residents in northern Japan got an early morning wake-up call last Tuesday, with a government text message just after 6 a.m. saying North Korea fired a missile that would pass through the skies.

"Missile alert, missile alert," the warning began. The official instructions that followed said to take cover underground or in a strong building.

Days later, in small towns in Hokkaido, the alert went off again as part of a municipally organized evacuation drill, so residents can feel more prepared should a missile fly by again.

Locals — mostly retirees — joined students at Maple Tree Elementary, where classes of children as young as 5 were guided by their teachers into the designated evacuation spot, the school gym.

"This was just a drill," principal Makoto Takahashi says. "You all did a good job. In the event of an actual missile situation, this would all happen quickly so make sure you stay calm and move to this location."

Similar air raid practices are happening across this island nation as part of Japan's civil defense. After the drill in Iwamizawa, the schoolchildren being picked up by their parents outside seemed unfazed.

"We were sleeping," 11-year old Mao Akiyama said of her surprise start to the day last week. "When I woke up in the morning, my grandma was saying something about missiles and she was getting all upset about it."

Now many retirees from this town — and across Japan — are voluntarily taking part in these drills, evidence of the growing concern about North Korea's fast-advancing nuclear and missile programs.

Seventy-eight-year-old Hisato Yamada was at home last Tuesday when the text alert came across her phone.

"My phone was ringing, and I guess you really feel quite scared and nervous at that time," Yamada says.

The government sends out alerts through Japan's emergency management system, J-Alert. It cuts into broadcast TV and radio — and lets officials reach every mobile phone in the country.

"I really thought this was scary. I mean, sometimes there are accidents. Sometimes missiles fall out of the sky! You never know. So I think it's great I could do this kind of training," Yamada says.

After each drill, local officials review what happened, go over procedures for next time and remind residents to make sure they have their phones close and radios handy. Other practical advice includes identifying an underground location or strong building to go to if a siren goes off.

Yamada says she never wanted to think about evacuations again after living through an actual evacuation during World War II. She was 6 years old.

"I really don't like to live in a world where I always have to feel afraid that something might happen again, that this danger still exists, that a missile might come. I don't feel happy with this kind of world that we're living in," she says.

Some 70 years after the start of the Cold War, she and her neighbors are practicing duck-and-cover drills reminiscent of her wartime youth.

Shizuka Andersen contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

As North Korea has been advancing its nuclear program, one country especially alarmed right now is North Korea's neighbor Japan. Last Tuesday, a North Korean missile flew over the Japanese island of Hokkaido. And that's where we find NPR's Elise Hu. She has met residents in the flight path who are rethinking the threat.

(SOUNDBITE OF MISSILE ALERT)

VOICE RECORDING: (Speaking Japanese).

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Missile alert, missile alert - this is the warning residents of Hokkaido awoke to last week. Today, the alert's going off again in Hokkaido's town of Iwamizawa, so its locals can be better prepared should a missile come this way again.

MAKOTO TAKAHASHI: (Speaking Japanese).

HU: The folks here, mostly retirees, join students at Maple Tree Elementary, where classes of children as young as 5 are guided by their teachers into a designated evacuation spot, the school gym. Here, they wait out instructions.

TAKAHASHI: (Speaking Japanese).

HU: This was just a drill, the principal says, and you all did a good job. In the event of an actual missile situation, this would happen quickly. So make sure you stay calm and move to this location. Similar air raid practices are happening across this island nation as part of Japan's civil defense. This northern Japanese island is known for its ski resorts, lush green fields and endless horizon - a peaceful place, usually, unless it's rattled by North Korean neighbors. After the drill, the schoolchildren being picked up by their parents seem unfazed.

Where were you all when the actual missile flew over Hokkaido?

MAO AKIYAMA: (Through interpreter) We were sleeping (laughter).

HU: That's 11-year-old Mao Akiyama and her younger brother, who remember getting a surprise to start their day last week.

MAO: (Through interpreter) When I woke up in the morning, my grandma was saying something about missiles, and she was getting all upset about it, so (laughter)...

HU: Now many retirees from this town and across Japan are voluntarily taking part in these drills, evidence of the growing concern about North Korea's fast-advancing nuclear and missile programs. Seventy-eight-year-old Hisato Yamada was at home last Tuesday when the alert came across her phone.

HISATO YAMADA: (Through interpreter) My phone was ringing. And I guess you really feel quite scared and nervous at the time.

HU: The government sends out alerts through Japan's emergency management system, J-Alert. It cuts into broadcast TV and radio and lets officials reach every mobile phone in the country.

YAMADA: (Through interpreter) I really thought this was scary. I mean, sometimes, there are accidents. Sometimes, missiles fall out of the sky. You never know. So I think it's great I can do this kind of training.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

HU: Yamada, who's now nearing the end of her life, says she never wanted to think about evacuations again after living through an actual one during World War II. She was 6 years old.

YAMADA: (Through interpreter) I really don't like to live in a world where I always have to feel afraid that something might happen again, that this danger still exists, that a missile might come. I don't feel happy with this kind of world that we are living in.

HU: Some 70 years after the start of the Cold War, she and her neighbors are practicing duck-and-cover drills reminiscent of her wartime youth.

Elise Hu, NPR News, Iwamizawa.

(SOUNDBITE OF SATOMI SAEKI'S "MATSURI NO TAIKO (FESTIVAL DRUM)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.