Experiencing A Missile Scare

I woke up at 6:04 am today. So did most of northeastern Japan.

My alarm sounds promptly at 7:05 am — then again at 7:10, 7:15, and 7:25, just to make sure I’m actually up and moving so I can get to work on time. I’m a woman who values her sleep above most other things, and mornings are hard.

This morning was harder. At 6:02 am, an unfamiliar alarm began to sound, loudly, from my smartphone.

Japan is innovative in the most practical (and often impractical) ways, which fortunately includes an earthquake alert system for quakes at a 5-lower or higher rating on the Japanese seismic scale. This means that your phone will occasionally awake you with a fright at 3 am, approximately five seconds before the shelves start to rattle. That’s about enough time to dive under your table, or roll over in your sleep and groan.

This alarm was different, though, and even half asleep, I knew so from the unfamiliar tone chiming —almost cheerily — on my Android. As I climbed down my loft ladder I thought the same thing I think every morning: “I’d better shut that off before it wakes the neighbors,” with a side of, “...what on earth does that alarm mean?”

I didn’t notice it right away, but there was an announcement and siren sounding from the city’s loudspeaker system somewhere outside. And as I fumbled for the alert’s “dismiss” button, I gleaned the word “missile” in the message and my heart sank. I frantically reopened the alert to read the text.

Missile launch. Missile launch.

Anyone living in the region or following international news is surely aware of the growing tensions between the US and its allies, and North Korea. Threats have been issued and gobbled up on both sides like candy, with seemingly little regard to potential consequences. Just this past Saturday, three test missiles were fired into the Sea of Japan, the then-latest act of aggression on the part of the DPRK.

It turns out that my reading comprehension in my second language of seven years falls apart when the word “missile” appears. At the time, I only pieced bits of the rest of the message together:

It seems (a) missile has been fired from North Korea. Please retreat to a sturdy building or underground.

This unfamiliar alarm, and the source of this message, turned out to be the work of an emergency system I hadn’t heard of before today. J-Alert is a system that was put into place in 2007 as a way to quickly notify the public of crisis situations, such as the 2011 Tohoku earthquake. It is rarely used — it’s rarely a necessity.

By 6:06 am I was having a hysteric breakdown on the floor of my bedroom. Utterly embarrassing for a grown woman, but perhaps an understandable reaction to the news that suggested missiles were heading for the country and we might not live to see the afternoon.

After the waterworks, I pulled myself together as quickly as possible by focusing on the logical. I got dressed in case I would need to leave home, and messaged my loved ones and my local friends. Then I did the next most rational thing I could think of, and started to search for emergency procedures for this situation in my city.

Only there are none. Every site I found and every safety document I ran across was very short and advised only to get inside a sturdy building, get away from all windows, and retreat into a windowless room if possible. There are no shelters for ballistic missile launches, no structures that are truly, absolutely safe. And there would be no time, in Japan, to get to them if there were.

I live on the second floor of an old apartment building. In other words, I hid in my shower.

From my plastic bath stool, I called my mother while sharing information and exchanging translations with a LINE group of friends in the area. We all concluded the same thing — there’s nothing to be done but wait. There’s no where to go. There’s no evacuation plan or bunker; there are scarcely even any basements in Japan.

At 6:14 am, another message came.

Missile passing. Missile passing. It seems that moments ago, the missile passed through the airspace. If you discover anything suspicious, do not approach, but immediately contact the police or fire department.

Each member of my LINE group had a slightly different understanding of the Japanese text of this message at the time. On first look, I thought the missile was overhead at that moment, a thought which froze me in fear as though a single breath could be the difference between life, and death falling from the sky. Another friend thought that it was already falling — and then repeated that, actually, it was a moment later, and that it may have hit Hokkaido.

(Thankfully, we soon received her correction that it fell into the ocean near Hokkaido, and resulted in no casualties or damage.)

The immediate threat was over, but none of us knew where to go from that moment. The terrifying thought that it had taken the missile a mere 16 minutes (it had actually been fired at 5:58 am) to hurdle over and past Japan brought the stark realization that we were powerless. 16 minutes is enough time to message your friends and say your I-love-yous, and maybe get your parents on the phone one last time — but there is only so much that can be done in the way of self preservation in so little time.

And we were full of so many questions, even after the initial fright was over:

How many missiles were launched?
Was there a nuclear warhead mounted on the missile?
Should we be concerned about the water?
Should we be concerned about a counter strike?
Why didn’t the JSDF attempt to intercept the missile?
Is it safe to leave home? Or go to work?
What happens now?

Until today, I was a firm believer in the policy adopted by most foreign powers thus far, which has been to avoid conflict and escalation of the North Korea situation while trying not to let it get out of hand. Any way you cut it, there is no safe or easy way to handle the current regime in North Korea. It seemed to me, as it did to many others, that avoidance was the best bet for keeping the surrounding regions safe.

But trembling out “I love yous” to loved ones over text, understanding that you may cease to exist within the hour, is a powerful mind-changer. Powerful, too, is the palpable fear instilled by the unpredictability of North Korean missiles, in that one could hit Japan (or another country for that matter) entirely by mistake. This morning’s launch could have just as well ended in tragedy as a plunge into the ocean. Next time, luck may be on another side — and that’s enough reason, in my opinion, not to risk a next time.