September 13, 2017 6:02 pm JST

Japanese prepare for the worst as North Korea rattles its sabers

Fallout shelters and evacuation drills reflect growing fear of a missile attack

KENTARO IWAMOTO, Nikkei staff writer

Junior high school students rush into the gymnasium during a missile-evacuation drill in Tsugaru, Aomori Prefecture, on Sept. 1. (Photo by Kentaro Iwamoto)

TOKYO   At Oribe Seiki Seisakusho, a century-old family-run company in the western Japanese city of Kobe, sales are booming in what until recently was a struggling side business: fallout shelters.

The industrial engineering company began studying shelter technologies in 1962 -- the year of the Cuban missile crisis -- when the Cold War was raging and the possibility that the Soviet or U.S. leader might press the nuclear button seemed very real. 

"Even Switzerland, a neutral country, was installing fallout shelters," Nobuko Oribe, the company's director, told the Nikkei Asian Review. "We thought Japan should also prepare for nuclear threats." 

But interest at home was tepid, with only a handful of orders rolling in each year.

"Because Japan lost the war, people didn't want to think about another one," Oribe said. "People believed that no one would be stupid enough to [use nuclear weapons]."

This year, however, orders have spiked. As of early September, the company's revenue from shelters and related products was up 38 times from the figure for all of 2016. And it is not just shelters that customers -- mainly individuals and smaller businesses -- want. Oribe is also seeing strong interest in ventilation devices that can be installed inside homes.

It is no coincidence that business is roaring just as North Korea has ramped up the frequency of its missile and nuclear tests.

Getting ready

Pyongyang's provocations are putting a new spin on disaster preparedness in Japan, where the biggest threats to public safety have until now been seen as coming from Mother Nature. Every year on Sept. 1 -- the day the Great Kanto Earthquake struck Tokyo in 1923, leaving more than 100,000 people dead or missing -- evacuation drills are held across the nation to prepare for earthquakes, tsunami and other natural disasters. 

This year, however, some local governments, like the northeastern city of Tsugaru, Aomori Prefecture, added a mock missile attack to their Disaster Prevention Day exercises. Facing the Sea of Japan, the city lies just 1,200km from Pyongyang, well within striking range of North Korean missiles. It is also home to a U.S. military X-Band radar system.

On the morning of the drills in Tsugaru, emergency sirens howled their warning near an elementary and junior high school about 3-4km from the radar station. "A missile has been fired," intoned a voice over the PA system. "Please evacuate to a solid building or basement as quickly as possible."

The students, who had assembled in the schoolyard, rushed into the gymnasium, crouched on the floor and covered their heads.

"For a long time, I've thought this area could be a target," said Ichiyo Ono, 65, one of the 340 locals who took part in the drill. "If a missile alert came at night, it would be difficult for an elderly person like me to evacuate."

Toshiaki Sakamoto, an emergency management official for Aomori Prefecture, said people are on edge. "In the past, North Korea would announce the expected trajectory and landing point before a missile launch," he told reporters. "But recently, it announced the trajectory after the launch. It also fired one in the middle of the night. I think the missile tests are becoming more real."

Tsugaru's drill came after Tokyo in April called on local municipalities to prepare for possible attacks. The central government itself has organized about 15 such exercises nationwide since March.

But some see the drills as pointless. "I don't believe a missile will really strike here," said one Tsugaru resident. Mutsuo Mikami, 75, who lives in the neighboring town, has a different concern. "I wouldn't know what to do if a missile actually came," he said. "There's no place near my home where I can hide underground."

Meanwhile, sales of fallout shelters continue to rise at Oribe. Among its recent orders is a 100 million yen ($926,000) underground shelter that can accommodate 400 people.

One can only hope that it never has to be used.

But Nobuko Oribe's father, who doggedly refused to give up on the shelter business despite decades of meager returns, was not so optimistic.

"Sometime in the future," she recalls him saying, "our country will need shelters."

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