Japanese schools rush to make protection plans against missile launches

Elementary school students take part in an evacuation drill for a simulated North Korean missile attack, in Abu, Yamaguchi prefecture, Japan, on June 4, 2017.
Elementary school students take part in an evacuation drill for a simulated North Korean missile attack, in Abu, Yamaguchi prefecture, Japan, on June 4, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO (THE JAPAN NEWS/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Schools in Japan are searching for the best way for children and students to take shelter should a missile launch happen during school hours.

The Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry plans to revise its handbook for risk management manuals to add information on how to respond to missile launches and other such situations.

North Korea's missile launch last Friday (Sept 15), which flew over Japan, occurred when children and students were on their way to school. One school in Ibaraki Prefecture cancelled classes, and 222 schools in 12 prefectures, including Hokkaido, Aomori and Iwate, delayed the start of school, according to the ministry.

These decisions are currently left up to the schools or their local boards of education, and the boards are scrambling to come up with standards.

On Sept 7, the board of education of Yuzawa, Akita Prefecture, decided at a meeting of school principals that if the J-Alert nationwide warning system issued a warning at 6.30am or earlier, children and students should wait at home.

If the alert is issued when they are on their way to school, the start of classes would be delayed by one hour.

Last Friday, the city's 17 elementary and junior high schools followed these criteria, delaying the start of classes by one hour.

In Ibaraki Prefecture, the principal and others of Tsuchiura Nihon University Secondary School were already at school when the J-Alert warning was issued. They decided to cancel classes for the day.

Asked why the school did not change its decision after the missile fell into the Pacific Ocean, a school official said: "We thought it would create confusion to rescind the decision cancelling school. And there was no guarantee another missile wouldn't be launched. It was a difficult decision."

Some schools, anticipating a missile could be launched while children are in class, have conducted drills on how to respond.

An elementary school in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, held its first such drill on the morning of Sept 8. An announcement saying, "We have been informed that a missile has been launched", was broadcast throughout the school and children then donned protective hoods and squatted in the hallways.

"It'd be scary if a missile really came," a 10-year-old fifth grade boy said anxiously.

A ministry warning states that when seeking shelter during an earthquake, people should go to places where things are unlikely to collapse or fall on them, but there are no concrete instructions about what to do in case of a missile launch.

The school therefore took it upon itself to decide on response methods and choose safe places to go, such as hallways with no windows.

"We don't want to make the kids anxious, but we do want to teach them how to protect themselves should something happen," the school's principal said.

To prevent discrimination, such as against children of Korean residents of Japan, the school does not use the words "North Korea" in its announcements.

An elementary school on Okinoshima island in Shimane Prefecture held similar drills on Sept 6.

"Elementary school students would have trouble understanding the international circumstances behind the missile launches," the school's principal said, adding that the school did not teach children about such issues.

This fiscal year, the ministry plans to revise the handbook that schools base their risk management manuals on. Examples of how and where to take shelter when a J-Alert is issued are expected to be included.

"North Korea is currently sending its missiles high above the territorial airspace of the Japanese archipelago. The crisis level is low, but things could deteriorate in the future," said consultant Tatsumi Tanaka, who is an expert on crisis management.

"Schools can't be left on their own to draw up appropriate countermeasures to protect children's lives and safety. The ministry and prefectural boards of education need to quickly come up with unified standards for getting children and students to safety."