Living in Japan has always felt a safe haven, worlds away from the terror threats in Europe and all other atrocities happening across the globe. However, my safe bubble on the magical islands of Far East Asia appears to have a puncture, slowly deflating with each and every verbal display of power launched between North Korea and the US.
We often watch big changes on the news and we feel a small pang of emotion as we attempt to imagine how it must be for the people coping with the devastation. But it is hard to comprehend how those people must be feeling from behind the TV screen if we have never experienced it for ourselves- but now I find the shoe is on the other foot.
On 29th August 2017, at 6:10am, I received an unidentified phone call. It was my new teaching assistant calling in a panic from her home in a nearby prefecture. Her J-alert* was going off on her phone saying that a missile was on its way and that she was not allowed to leave her house. She was to close all windows and doors and stay indoors. At first I did not recognise her voice and she was speaking so frantically I only really heard ‘North Korea’ – ‘missile’ – ‘can’t leave the house’. Understandably she was upset and we ended the phone call with both of us confused and unsure of what to do next.
*For those who are unsure, J-alert is a nation wide mobile phone alerting system designed to warn residents of emergency situations such as strong earthquakes, typhoons and now missile attacks.
Almost immediately I brought up the BBC news app on my phone but nothing was mentioned about a missile. I switched on the TV to find that there was also no mention on the international news. My J-alert was silent and when I looked out the window, people were going about their everyday business as usual. It felt so surreal to hear and know that something so large was happening in the neighbouring prefecture and yet everything around me in Chiba was just so… normal. Finally it was broadcast across the world that an unarmed missile was launched from North Korea at 5:57am, travelling over the north island of Hokkaido and landing in the Pacific Ocean. Naturally it was the focus of conversation at school that day, especially when those affected by the morning’s events finally arrived. The children were a mixture of emotions. Some were full of the facts they had learnt from their parents or the morning’s news, some (more vocal students) had a lot of passionate opinions to share and some preferred to just listen. As a teacher, I find it difficult to find the right balance in discussions with my students about such big worldly events as this. How much truth do you allow before it becomes too much? All those in the teacher profession will understand that to withhold the truth from our children, would be doing them a disservice but how much of that truth do you reveal before you begin to cause distress and worry? On this occasion we stuck to the basic facts. A missile was launched from North Korea. It was unarmed. It went over Hokkaido but it was aiming for somewhere else. That seemed to be enough this time.
In true Japanese fashion, that sparked a flurry of preparation and organisation across the country. The government released guidance on what to do in case of a missile attack. The school needed to write a policy for staff to follow in case of an incident and not long after the 29/08/17 launch, we did our first ‘missile attack’ drill.
On the following Tuesday morning at 9am (after a short explanation) I shouted as expected ‘Missile! Under the table!”. The children grabbed their earthquake cushions, put them on their head and went under the table. They were to position themselves with their backs to the windows in case of shattered glass. I put on my helmet, closed all the curtains then stood in the corner of the classroom. As I stood waiting for the signal of the all clear, I cannot deny that there was a lump in my throat watching my grade 4 children all huddled under the tables. What if this was real? What if this was their future? It all seemed so unfair and sad. They have no say and no choice in what happens to their future, not in the upcoming months anyway. All they can do is obey and wait anxiously for the unknown whilst those in power argue with far too much fire power. I hope as Trump tweets ‘Fire and Fury!’ that he is considering those innocents living in between but I highly doubt it.
Since then, there has been a second missile launch in our direction. On the morning of Friday 15th September, a BBC alert popped up on my phone home screen.
“North Korea fires another missile. Japan has issued a national warning.”
Honestly, I had no idea what to do. Again I checked all my possible news sources- again nothing. I looked outside and again, everyone was going about their usual business. I asked my husband what we should do but as I had just woken him up, he didn’t quite share the same uncertainty. My J-alert was silent and there seemed to be no indication that we were in danger. I messaged a colleague to see if it was a figment of my imagination and then had no other choice but to continue my normal work routine. There seemed to be fewer people around than usual on my route to school but I get a feeling that, that was a little paranoia playing with my thoughts. By the time I reached school the missile had missed and landed in the Pacific Ocean again but this time seemingly nearer its target… Guam. I must admit, it is unnerving waking up some mornings with potential warnings or BBC alerts and not knowing what to do. I assume that the J-alert is really the thing I need to look out for and everything else is just news too distant to worry about. Naturally, as more scares come our way, the more my children begin to ask questions. It is getting harder to answer because deep down no one really knows what North Korea plans to do. We can make calculated guesses but we’re not sure.
I know if my parents or my family read this post, that they would no doubt worry but that is not the purpose of this entry. It is not to shock or scare but to inform and remember. In reality the threats in Japan remain minimal at the moment and with the recent bouts of terror attacks in London, it still feels like Japan is the safest place to be out of my two homes. The purpose of this entry is to remind my future self that I am experiencing first hand and not from behind a TV screen, an unexpected chapter in history.