Photographer: Akio Kon/Bloomberg

Hundreds Hurry for Cover During Tokyo’s First Missile Drill

  • Critics say that the North Korean threat is being exaggerated
  • Abe government recently approved record defense budget

As a siren warned of an approaching North Korean missile, hundreds of people in central Tokyo hurried for cover in buildings and under ground.

But unlike the false alarm in Hawaii nine days earlier, this was just a drill. The government planned Monday’s exercise to raise awareness about taking action should a ballistic device be detected heading for the densely populated Japanese capital.

Drill participants listen to a missile alert.

Photographer: Akio Kon/Bloomberg

While Japan has long lived with North Korean threats, unease grew last year after the Pyongyang regime fired a brace of missiles over the country into the Pacific Ocean. The government has responded with a new information campaign and the approval of a record defense budget.

"I hope it doesn’t happen, but if it does I don’t want to do nothing, so I’m glad there is a chance to learn," said 34-year-old company employee Akina Osawa, who turned out in the midwinter sleet for Tokyo’s first such drill.

Participants walk towards a subway entrance during the drill.

Photographer: Akio Kon/Bloomberg

Local governments have already held more than 100 drills. Many have been in rural areas where the dearth of concrete buildings or basements left some residents with little option but to crouch and try to cover their heads. There would only be about five minutes to take action: the national government says a February 2016 missile took about 10 minutes to fly from North Korea to Okinawa.

Abe’s Vow

A small group of protesters held up placards reading: "Is there any point in doing this?" and "Let’s have dialogue, not war," as police tried to shift them away from the drill site.

"This kind of meaningless training is just fanning feelings of enmity," said Nobuhiro Onishi, a 44-year-old elderly-care worker, who added he didn’t believe North Korea would actually attack Japan.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said earlier this month that North Korea had created the worst security situation for Japan since World War II, and vowed to strengthen defenses to meet the country’s real needs rather than continuing on past lines. He’s also seeking to revise the pacifist constitution to include a reference to the Self-Defense Forces.

The budget for the financial year starting in April includes funds for a new land-based missile defense system, which will add a third layer to its interception capabilities, as well as long-range cruise missiles that could potentially be used to attack a North Korean base.

‘No Point’

Many Japanese appear nonchalant about the threat. When residents of northern Japan received a warning that a missile was actually flying over the area in September, a government survey found only 5.6 percent of respondents said they took shelter.

Protesters demonstrate at the drill site.

Photographer: Akio Kon/Bloomberg

The most common reasons people gave were that there was "no point" or that they didn’t know where to go. Official advice is to move away from windows if indoors, or get to the ground and cover your head if no shelter is available.

But Japan has suffered its share of missile-warning errors. On Jan. 16, public broadcaster NHK issued an alert by mistake, which it withdrew shortly afterward.

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