The government of Japan's Hokkaido prefecture wants to be sure its 5.4 million residents know what to do in the event North Korea launches a ballistic missile at the island nation. So it has published the civil-defense guidance in the form of a comic book.
A weirdly adorable comic book’s main advice: duck and cover. And fast.
“It's important that you take action in the several minutes you have upon receiving the emergency alert,” the comic urges.
Hokkaido is Japan's northernmost and largest prefecture. It's squarely in the path of the increasingly long-range ballistic missiles that North Korea has been lobbing into the Pacific Ocean in 2017—in part as tests, but also as diplomatic power-plays.
A North Korean ballistic missile overflew Hokkaido in August and another in September. In parallel with its efforts to build bigger and farther-flying rockets, Pyongyang has been hard at work shrinking its nuclear warheads to fit on the rockets.
With tensions escalating, Hokkaido commissioned Hokkaido-based illustrator Manabu Yamamoto to pen a short comic—manga is the Japanese term—advising local residents how to protect themselves during a rocket attack. Yamamoto drew the four-page pamphlet in the exaggerated cute style known as moe.
The manga depicts fishermen, a farmer, a young woman, an old woman, a businessman and a girl all going about their peaceful lives. Working. Jogging. Commuting. Sleeping.
A rocket blasts off. A civil-defense alarm blares from a loudspeaker. Everyone ducks and takes cover—the fishermen on their boat, the farmer between rows of crops, schoolkids under their desks and the young woman in a bathroom along her jogging route. The old woman and her family clutch pillows to their heads and cower behind their kitchen counter. The commuting businessman quickly parks and ducks around a corner.
The Hokkaido government's advice doesn't specifically mention a nuclear attack. All the same, it's reminiscent of the approach U.S. authorities took to civil-defense during the Cold War, when the American people lived under the unrelenting threat of a Soviet nuclear sneak attack. In 1951, the federal government even circulated a cartoon starring a goofy, anthropomorphic turtle demonstrating how to duck and cover as nukes exploded.
While crouching under a desk wouldn't save you from an atomic fireball or the subsequent radioactive fallout, it just might protect you from flying glass and other debris. The Federal Emergency Management Agency still endorses duck-and-cover as the best way for people to survive the immediate effects of an atomic shock wave originating a few miles away.
"After the first mile it travels, the wave takes approximately five seconds to traverse the next mile," FEMA explained in its 2010 "Planning Guidance for a Response to a Nuclear Detonation. "This is enough time for a person with the right information to seek basic shelter for safety—e.g., duck and cover.”
As Hawaii lies in the potential path of North Korean rockets, authorities there have recently dusted off Cold War-vintage civil-defense measures. “Get inside, stay inside, stay tuned, state senator Gil Riviere advised at September emergency-management meeting.
But Riviere admitted that, in the event of a nuclear attack, panic is likely. "It seems to me that primal instincts are going to just overwhelm nearly everybody," he said.
James Simpson, an independent military analyst who lives in Japan, told The Daily Beast he believes most Japanese aren’t expecting a North Korean attack. “I think there is a general understanding here that there is a danger that a missile will land on Japanese soil, but probably by accident—i.e., not a direct attack on Japan -- and the government's advice is somewhat useless yet better than nothing.”
In any event, Japan isn't depending entirely on passive measures—and widespread calm—to protect its people from North Korean missile attacks, however unlikely. While Hokkaido distributes comics and everyday people clutch pillows to their heads during drills, the Japanese military is developing high-tech missile defenses meant to intercept North Korean rockets in mid-flight. "Japan has steadily built up its own multi-tier defense system against ballistic-missile attacks," the country's missile-defense agency stated.
Tokyo was an early adopter of American-designed missile-defense technology, starting in 2004. Japan fielded powerful early-warning radars, Aegis-radar-equipped destroyers armed with Standard missiles capable of hitting rockets at the peak of their trajectories and, finally, land-based Patriot missile-interceptors for last-ditch defense around major cities.
To this basic system, the military wants to add the so-called "Aegis Ashore" system, which takes the radars and missiles from the warships and installs them on land. In September the Japanese defense ministry requested nearly $2 billion for missile-defense gear in 2018.