How Japan is preparing for a nuclear attack
‘Few US voters realise that American troops in Japan or even California might be a target for a missile strike’

by: Gillian Tett

Earlier this month, I travelled to Tokyo, where I caught up with some Japanese friends. As we chatted about global affairs, one of them, Michiyo, revealed that her doctor husband had recently given her anti-radiation pills to carry in her handbag.

The reason? Not the leak of radioactive material that occurred at the Fukushima nuclear plant after it was hit by a tsunami six years ago. Instead, what worries Michiyo’s husband is North Korea.

In recent months, the secretive country has conducted an escalating series of missile tests, including one just last week. This has sparked fears among western intelligence services that Pyongyang could be close to acquiring an inter-continental ballistic missile with the ability to deliver nuclear warheads to places such as Japan, Guam, Hawaii or even California.T

here are reports that North Korea has mastered several of the crucial stages for creating an ICBM: the ability to launch and guide a missile, create a nuclear warhead and then miniaturise it. Meanwhile tensions have risen between the unpredictable regime of Kim Jong-un and the (sometimes equally unpredictable) US president Donald Trump, prompting speculation that North Korea might try to direct a missile at a US base in Japan.

The Japanese government has responded by issuing guidelines for what to do in the event of a missile strike. Suggestions include sheltering in an underground shopping arcade, basement, concrete building or, if all else fails, under a table or in a cupboard in the centre of the house, for at least two days, presumably to let any fallout from an attack settle down.

Many Japanese households have duly been stocking up on food, water, batteries, nappies (which might be needed to stand in for toilets, my friends solemnly told me) and those anti-radiation tablets. Company executives have prepared backup offices, financial institutions have spread money in different locations and utility services and schools have conducted drills. Indeed, while I was in Tokyo the trains briefly shut down following one of North Korea’s missile tests.

I hope that in a few years’ time these drills will simply look like an overreaction, a quaint historical curiosity, comparable to moves that the US government took to prepare for a Soviet nuclear attack during the cold war (back then people were also told to hide in a cupboard).

Nobody has a clue whether Pyongyang could or would ever dare fire a missile, or whether the Americans possess the ability to intercept it. Foreign policy observers still think an attack is very unlikely. But what is striking about all these preparations in Japan is not that they are occurring but that so few people in the US or Europe know about them. That is partly because the North Korean threat has largely stayed below the surface, at least in the public consciousness.


One of the US’s biggest business groups, for example, polls its members each quarter about how company executives perceive geopolitical risks. Until very recently, a minute proportion of companies considered North Korea to be the most serious threat; instead, the dominant focus for concern was so-called Islamic State.

Yet the pattern is changing. In the most recent survey, compiled this month, North Korea is ranked as the number one threat, above Isis. But most voters still know little about the country, and few realise that American troops in Japan or California might be a target.

A second reason why the preparations are not better known is that the Japanese public are themselves notably stoic. If the White House had told voters to buy supplies for a possible missile attack, the news would have ricocheted around the world. But most Japanese have simply acquired supplies as suggested and got on with their lives with a minimum of fuss.

That might seem peculiar to Americans. But Japanese people have lived with the knowledge that North Korea could fire a missile towards them for many years. And, of course, they have also weathered earthquakes. Confronting a possible missile threat looks scary but it’s not necessarily any more frightening than the knowledge that more than 33,000 people are killed by gunfire each year in the US. Cultural perceptions of danger vary.

But the next time I see Trump talk or tweet about North Korea, I will think about my friend’s anti-radiation pills. The fact that she is now carrying them in her wallet is a tragic sign of how peculiar the world has become. I just hope that she will never even have to think about using them.

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