“Missile launch! Missile launch! A missile appears to have been launched from North Korea. Take cover in a building or underground,” the alert blared.
To the accompaniment of blaring sirens and emergency phone alerts, that was the terrifying loudspeaker message that jolted millions of Japanese awake in the early hours as North Korea blasted its second missile over the country in just over two weeks.
But for residents along its flight path over Hokkaido, there was no question of this becoming a routine event.
“I cannot say that we are used to this. I mean, the missile flew right above our town. It’s not a very comforting thing to hear,” said Yoshihiro Saito, who works in the small fishing town of Erimo in Hokkaido.
“It’s pretty scary. I heard that it went 2,000 km into the Pacific and dropped in the sea” where 16 of his ships were operating under its flight path.
Citizens in the earthquake-prone nation are well-drilled in seeking cover when emergency strikes, but with only a matter of minutes from launch to impact, several residents voiced a feeling of helplessness.
“It’s really scary. The government tells us to flee to stable buildings but we can’t do that quickly. Our colleagues offshore can never take cover,” said Yoichi Takahashi, 57, a Hokkaido fisheries official in Kushiro.
“It has now happened twice to us. … We’ll have restless days from now on,” Takahashi said.
Isamu Oya, 67, a sushi restaurant owner in Erimo, said: “The government told us to take cover in a stable building or underground, but there isn’t one here. We have no choice but to just do nothing.
“Scary? Yes, but we can’t help it.”
Breakfast-time TV programs, which usually stick to a light-hearted diet of children’s shows and gadget features, instead flashed up the warning message as the intermediate-range ballistic missile flew overhead.
Mobile phone carriers in Japan sent automatic text messages to rouse customers awake, and train services between Honshu and Hokkaido were temporarily suspended after the launch, along with bullet train services.
Airports in the area appeared to be unaffected, however, with Shinya Matsuura, an official at Obihiro Airport, near the missile’s flight path, saying passengers there were calm and quiet.
“We are just relieved it did not affect us.”
There were no immediate reports of falling debris or damage, but Tokyo stressed that a missile launch without warning could have destroyed ships or aircraft in the area.
But some residents along the missile’s flight path fretted that repeated launches could have a damaging influence on their day-to-day lives.
“We are afraid that this may have an impact on our life, ranging from fishing to tourism,” said Hironori Matsura, an official at the anti-disaster division at Erimo’s town hall.
Sushi chef Oya said he thought the missile wouldn’t affect his trade as most of his customers were local but acknowledged that he was “afraid this may affect the flow of tourism to Erimo.”
Meanwhile, others displayed a grim determination that life would go on.
Saito admitted that the missile has been dominating conversation in the town — “like how scary it is” — but said: “No one really has talked about stopping their work or suspending their operations.”