Ever since North Korea lobbed two missiles far above this windswept fishing town on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido, seaweed farmer Mitsuyo Kawamura said she has been on edge.
“Now when I hear a loud sound, I look outside, I look out at the ocean,” 68-year-old Kawamura said from her seaside cottage in Erimo, where she laid out long, dark strands of kombu seaweed on stones to dry in the sun. “I feel anxious, like I never know when it will come again.”
As Japan prepared to vote in today’s national election, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called North Korea’s escalating threats — it also conducted a sixth nuclear test last month — a “national crisis” that only he could lead Japan through.
Illustration: Louise Ting
Yet the missiles that flew over Erimo on Aug. 29 and Sept. 15 created an eerie threat: No one saw or heard them. They streaked by several hundreds of kilometers above land, too high to see with the naked eye, before splashing into the Pacific more than 1,000km to the east.
Warnings of the missiles spread through sirens and government-issued “J-alerts” on millions of cellphones throughout Japan, jolting some out of sleep.
Kawamura has since stocked up on extra food and keeps the radio on to listen for more warnings. Like many residents here — and across Japan — she feels helpless, unsure of how to protect herself.
“When it’s launched, it could land here just moments later,” she said. “There’s nowhere to hide.”
Abe’s rhetoric has grown harsher as North Korea has threatened to “sink” Japan and seems intent on developing nuclear warheads that can reach the US mainland. He has repeatedly backed US President Donald Trump’s “all options on the table” stance and said now is not the time for dialogue.
“They promised in 1994 and again in 2005 that they would abandon their nuclear program, but they have broken their word and developed nuclear devices and missiles,” Abe said at a campaign rally last week. “We’re not going to be deceived anymore.”
To protect itself, Japan has deployed 34 Patriot PAC-3 anti-missile batteries around the country, including one in Hokkaido, and Aegis defense systems on several destroyers. US forces in Japan also have ballistic missile defense equipment that can — if all goes well — take out a missile in mid-flight.
The rockets thrust tiny Erimo, population 4,850, into the global spotlight. Maps on TV broadcasts showed the missiles’ flight paths over nearby Cape Erimo, a jagged point that juts into the Pacific where seals frolic.
At the town’s docks, where fishermen sorted through the morning’s haul of salmon, tossing them into vats of ice water, strong support for Abe was mixed with worries that he was too strident, putting Japan at risk.
“Right now, no one’s better than Abe,” said Satoru Narita, a 72-year-old fisherman.
If anything, Japan has been too passive, said 23-year-old Ryosuke Kinoshita, who supported Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).
“Next time they launch one, I’d almost like to see us fire one back,” he said. “We can’t live in peace and safety.”
However, Erimo’ fishing union head Haruki Suminoya cautioned that being overly aggressive could provoke North Korea into lashing out.
“Abe’s approach is too strong, too hardline,” he said. “A more restrained approach is better.”
The recent war of words between Trump and North Korea unsettled many residents, who pointed out that they were a much closer target than the US.
While pressure was needed toward North Korea, being too tough could be disastrous, Erimo Mayor Masaki Ohnishi said.
“If North Korea does something serious, Japan is within shooting range,” he said.
So far, it seems that Abe is winning over voters. Nationwide polls show the LDP is headed for a big win today.
Erimo residents were divided on Abe’s signature policy of revising Japan’s war-renouncing constitution to clarify the status of the country’s military. Critics worry that it could lead to an expanded role for the armed forces overseas and entangle it in US-led conflicts.
However, Shinto Priest Hirotaka Tezuka, 39, said the constitution had grown outdated.
“We need a constitution that’s better suited to the present era,” he said.
Yoshihiro Naito, 77, opposed the idea.
“The commitment we’ve made not to wage war has kept Japan safe,” he said.
Naito plans to vote for an opposition party, because he thinks Abe and the LDP have become too powerful.
Town officials said they have not taken any particular precautionary steps following the recent missile launches, nor do they plan any “duck and cover” drills that have been held elsewhere.
The town has loudspeakers on 50 tall poles to broadcast warnings for tsunamis, typhoons and now missiles.
In recent months, it has installed wireless units in 1,500 of the 2,200 homes so that people can hear them when they are indoors.
Erimo also has emergency stocks of food, water and other supplies, the mayor said.
That is particularly important for Erimo, because it is linked to the rest of Hokkaido by only one coast-hugging road, which gets closed several times a year due to heavy rains or massive waves.
Local fishermen are nervous about North Korea’s warning that it might conduct a hydrogen bomb test over the Pacific, which they worry would contaminate the water, as the Fukushima nuclear disaster did in 2011.
“The radiation would make all the fish inedible,” Narita said. “Like in Fukushima, we couldn’t do our jobs.”
The town’s dwindling fishing industry has already been hit hard by a decline in the salmon catch, as well as by a dearth of youngsters to take over the trade.
When young people move away to cities such as Sapporo, Hokkaido’s capital, sometimes their parents follow them, residents said.
Erimo’s population, which peaked above 9,000 in the 1960s, has fallen to nearly half that level.
“We’re a fishing town,” Naito said. “So if we can’t catch fish any more, we’re finished.”
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