Fears of devastating earthquakes and tsunamis are giving way to concerns over atomic attack following multiple missile tests conducted by Pyongyang

A brief research trip to Japans north-east coast to witness the aftermath of the March 2011 tsunami was all that it took to persuade Yoshihiko Kurotori to build a shelter in his back garden.

His home in suburban Wakayama is just a kilometre from the stretch of Pacific coast that scientists say is likely to be struck by a powerful earthquake and tsunami in the coming decades, causing an estimated 320,000 deaths.

I saw the foundations of what had once been peoples homes and thought there and then that I needed to protect myself, Kurotori said. My neighbours asked me what on earth I was doing when the diggers arrived. They thought I was wasting my money, but you cant put a price on safety.

He opened the shelters heavy steel door to reveal a tiny room encased by steel-reinforced concrete walls of up to 35cm thick. The centrepiece is a Swiss-made 1.8m yen (12,200) ventilation unit designed to keep the shelters occupants alive while it filters out radioactive particles and nerve gases such as VX and sarin.

But today, it is the potential for a manmade disaster, not a natural calamity, that has convinced the retired teacher that he was right to part with almost 8m yen to build the tiny shelter.

Multiple missile tests conducted by North Korea this year, culminating in the launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile, have sparked alarm in Japan, and ushered in a flurry of civil defence activity not seen since the second world war.

Nine towns have conducted evacuation drills since North Korean missiles landed in the sea inside Japans exclusive economic zone in March, with around a dozen more expected to follow soon.

A 30-second government warning, aired on primetime TV, implores people to seek shelter in sturdy concrete buildings or flee underground in the event of an attack. Those stranded in their homes should hide behind sturdy objects, lie face down on the floor and stay away from windows.

Yoshihiko
Yoshihiko Kurotori has had a shelter built in his garden that he hopes will protect him from a tsunami and North Korean missile attacks. Photograph: Justin McCurry for the Guardian

And sales of nuclear shelters, air purifiers and gas masks are soaring.

Seiichiro Nishimoto, whose company built Kurotoris shelter, said inquiries had risen dramatically since the start of the year. His Osaka-based company has sold more than a dozen shelters in the past two months twice as many as it used to sell in a year.

Most of our customers are worried about nuclear fallout from a North Korean attack, Nishimoto, 80, said. I think we should have shelters everywhere in Japan. People complain about the cost, but the smallest ones are no more expensive than a family car.

Nishimoto added he had taken three orders in the past week and was in talks with the owners of an apartment block to install a communal shelter.

Nobuko Oribe, the director of Oribe Seiki Seisakusho, said her firm had received twice as many orders in April and May than during the whole of 2016. But theres a limit to how many people can build a shelter, and the government wont do it for them, she said. We went through Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and now, 70 years later, people are worried about nuclear attacks again.

The firm, founded by Oribes grandfather just after the Cuban missile crisis, offers a range of shelters, including one for up to 13 people that costs 25m yen.

Some have accused Japans conservative prime minister, Shinzo Abe, of seeking to exploit fears of war with North Korea to justify record defence spending and controversial plans to revise Japans pacifist constitution.

In April, he contributed to public unease when he claimed that North Korea may have the technology to equip ballistic missiles with warheads containing sarin nerve gas the substance used in the 1995 Doomsday cult attack on the Tokyo subway.

The same month, there was criticism after trains on the Tokyo subway were momentary halted after reports that North Korea had test-fired a missile a measure that hasnt been introduced in Seoul, which is just 35 miles from the heavily armed border with the North.

The concern felt by many Japanese, however, is not entirely misplaced. When North Koreas quest for a nuclear deterrent began two decades ago, Pyongyang launched a missile in 1998 that flew over Japanese territory before landing in the Pacific. The ICBM tested this week ended its flight in the sea inside Japans exclusive economic zone.

Japans government estimates it would take only 10 minutes for a missile to cover the 1,600 km between its North Korean launch site and a US military facility on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa.

Fear of nuclear fallout reaches deep into the popular psyche of a country that was twice targeted by atomic weapons. But Kurotori said more than seven decades of peace had made his compatriots complacent.

The problem with Japanese people is that we are take peace for granted, he said. They think the government will take care of everything, and that as long as we have an anti-war constitution that well be fine.

But just look around Japan is surrounded but instability, on the Korean peninsula, in the South China Sea.

At 75, he is unsure if he will live to see the Nankai earthquake and tsunami some experts predict will strike the region in the next 30 years. And he denies he is being alarmist over North Korean missiles.

Life is all about luck, you never know what lies around the corner, he said. Its about being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I dont know where Ill be if and when North Korea attacks, and I understand why my neighbours think Ive gone over the top, but all I want to do is improve my chances of survival. I dont see anything wrong with that.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jul/17/bunkering-down-sales-of-nuclear-shelters-climb-in-japan-wary-of-north-korea-tests