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Apocalypse Inc. rides North Korea bonanza

Nuclear shelter demand soars as fears mount

Workers lower an underground shelter produced by Japanese construction company Earth Shift Co. Inquiries on shelters and air purifiers have surged as tensions escalate on the Korean peninsula. (Photo provided by Earth Shift Co.)   © Earth-Shift Co.

TOKYO -- Fears of an apocalyptic nuclear war fueled by rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula have sent Japanese consumers flocking to makers of underground shelters and air purifiers.

The phenomenon, first reported in the run up to the April 25 anniversary of the foundation of North Korea's military, appears to still be going strongly even after the occasion passed without an anticipated nuclear test.

The reclusive regime has since further ratcheted up tensions with another failed missile test on Saturday and threats to destroy U.S. aircraft carriers stationed in waters off the Peninsula.

"In the last two months we received around 500 calls from people asking about our shelters," said Akira Shiga, sales manager at Earth Shift Co., a construction company based in Shizuoka prefecture, south of Tokyo. The company, which began selling underground bunkers following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that hit northeast Japan, typically receives a few dozen calls about its shelters a year. Now, it receives anywhere from 20 to 50 in a single day.

A household shelter designed to accommodate 4 to 10 people typically costs around 4 million yen ($35,800), Shiga said, while a larger shelter that can fit 40 to 50 people can cost around 30 million yen.

He said the company has received inquiries from residents living near U.S. bases. While Pyongyang has yet to develop the technology to launch a nuclear strike on the U.S. mainland, the 50,000 U.S. troops stationed across bases in Japan are already potential targets for conventional missile attacks.

Seiichiro Nishimoto, CEO of Osaka-based Shelter Co., noted a similar jump in inquiries, especially after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told a parliamentary session last month that North Korea may be capable of shooting missiles loaded with sarin nerve gas. The deadly gas was used in a 1995 terrorist attack by a doomsday cult targeting Tokyo subway commuters, killing 12 and causing thousands to fall ill.

Nishimoto sells air purifiers costing 2.8 million yen per unit that remove radiation and chemical substances from homes and offices. "We only sell a few of these a year, but we surpassed our annual sales in a single month," he said.

Daily media reports on escalating tensions in the Korean Peninsula are fueling anxiety among the general public. The government has also issued evacuation guidelines, asking citizens to run to the closest building or underground facility in case of a missile launch targeting Japan. The ruling party is also planning to advise the government to stock up on food and other necessities in subway stations and underground facilities, according to reports.

Shelters and air purifiers, however, are expensive and many are made-to-order or imported, meaning it could take several months before a unit is assembled or delivered and properly set up. But with no end in sight to Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions, shelter businesses like those run by Nishimoto could be in demand for some time.

"I'm 80-years-old and have been selling nuclear shelters for 55 years now," Nishimoto said.

"I'm overwhelmed with this flood of inquiries. I've never seen anything like this."

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