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Northern Japan wakes up to 'J-Alert' as N. Korean missile flies over Japan

A resident of the Aomori Prefecture city of Hirosaki carries a bag full of emergency supplies and looks for a sturdy building in which to take cover at 6:30 a.m. on Aug. 29, 2017. The photo has been partially modified. (Mainichi)

The Japanese government issued an emergency "J-Alert" warning to 12 prefectures in northern and eastern Japan in response to the launch of a missile by North Korea in the early morning of Aug. 29.

A little after 6 a.m., television screens continued to show warnings urging people to take shelter in sturdy buildings or underground while sirens rang in some communities.

A bulletin board at a subway station in Sapporo notifies passengers of delays due to the North Korean missile launch on the morning of Aug. 29, 2017. (Mainichi)

By 6:14 a.m., a J-Alert message that a missile had flown over and past Japan had been issued. While most people in these areas remained calm, some had begun evacuating to subway stations, or were contacting their local municipal governments for more information.

The missile flew over southern Hokkaido, the northernmost prefecture of Japan. Shortly after 6 a.m., staff members from the Hokkaido Prefectural Government's crisis management division were collecting information. Gov. Harumi Takahashi, who participated in a video conference with prefectural officials as she is away on a business trip spoke emphatically. "The passage of a missile over the prefecture is an extremely grave and serious situation of unprecedented proportions, and cannot be tolerated."

Concerned members of the public were found in Sapporo, the capital of Hokkaido. About a dozen or so nearby residents were found to have evacuated to Tsukisamu-Chuo subway station mostly in light clothing. Some looked at their smartphone screens with worried expressions, but once the announcement that the missile had flown past Hokkaido was issued, they returned to their homes looking relieved. One man in his 30s said with a tired look on his face, "I thought the station was safer than my own home. I'm glad the missile just flew past, but I never imagined a missile would be launched in the direction of Hokkaido."

Kimi Makanae, an 85-year-old resident of Hirosaki, Aomori Prefecture, heard the J-Alert on her cell phone. In response to messages urging residents to "evacuate to sturdy buildings or underground," she slung on a backpack with emergency supplies like drinks and batteries, and left her home. Once she was out on the street, however, she felt lost, not knowing where she should evacuate. "There's a university hospital nearby, but I don't know if I'm allowed to evacuate there, so I'm going to consult with a neighbor," she said.

In the Hokkaido town of Erimo, which is home to Cape Erimo, 1,180 kilometers west of where the missile is believed to have landed, six of the seven elementary, junior high, and senior high schools pushed back their start times by 30 minutes to two hours. The municipal government was working to figure out why the town's wireless emergency announcement system failed to function, although it is supposed to announce warnings when J-Alerts are issued.

"I'm a bit bewildered by reports that the missile fell into the sea off Cape Erimo, when in fact, it was quite a distance away," said Erimo Mayor Masaki Onishi. Meanwhile, the deputy manager of a supermarket in the town said, "I was surprised to receive an area-specific alert. I was worried, so I came to the store 30 minutes earlier than usual, but it looks like there won't be any impact on business."

In 2009, a North Korean missile flew over Iwate Prefecture in northeastern Japan. "I get the impression that the crisis level has gone up," Yoshiaki Ishikawa, who heads Iwate Prefecture's Comprehensive Disaster Prevention Division, commented in response to the latest missile launch. "Prefectural residents are very concerned, and I'd like to respond to their concerns responsibly."

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