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Death and Japan’s nuclear shelter salesman

Khrushchev once speculated that the survivors of the apocalypse would envy the dead. I agree.

LEO LEWIS,— 5 Feb 23

The “doomsday clock” maintained since 1947 by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists is many things. An index of our gossamer proximity to annihilation; a metaphor for the human paradox of progress and regression; a near-drained reservoir of hope that the gods will spare us from ourselves. And, of course, a superb marketing tool for any half-decent nuclear shelter salesman.

The Bulletin’s January 24 decision to move the hands of its doomsday clock closer to midnight (signifying global catastrophe) than they have ever been before should, logically, give the bunker business a recession-defying sales spike. The collective shrug it will actually get is more profoundly alarming.

For Hiroki Nakajima, the marketing director of shelter-maker World Net International (WNI), these are comparatively good times. North Korean ballistic missile tests and China’s rising military power, he says, have driven Japanese shelter sales significantly higher than in the past. The fear factor soared after Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine and started issuing explicit nuclear threats. WNI historically used to sell only a couple of $80,000 premium shelters a year; in 2022 that shot up to a still modest 25 — hardly a nation gripped with fear.

Nakajima, whose best customers are the very wealthy and very nervous, says he will consider listing the company on the Tokyo Stock Exchange “as society’s needs require”. He delivers his nuclear shelter sales pitch from a medium-sized warehouse with models arranged by size, blast resilience and interior decor. I am shown into one with eggshell blue padded walls and, optimistically given the post-Armageddon broadcasting constraints, a wall-mounted TV.

We are in the smallish seaside town of Yaizu, a pretty fishing port that looks back on to a snow-capped Mount Fuji and whose placidness contrasts effectively with the mental picture of the horrors that would make a shelter purchase value for money. Nakajima’s marketing strategy includes judicious repetition of the phrase “your whole family will die” wherever appropriate; mostly as the certain outcome of any attempt at self-preservation other than buying a WNI shelter.

As efforts to induce apocalyptic terror go, it is valiant stuff. But he is talking to someone who grew up in Britain in the 1980s: someone who has had his wits scared out of him by far, far more proficient fearmongers. Set against (among others) Threads, The War Game, When the Wind Blows and the Protect and Survive public information films, Japanese shelter marketing feels almost upbeat. As Cold War children we hummed pop songs that were more chillingly referential to nuclear obliteration than the WNI website. And that was when the Doomsday clock was set further from midnight than it is now.

But Nakajima is not without support in his bid to set out the risks. Last month, the Japanese government began considering for the first time what a shelter subsidy scheme might look like, suggesting that its assessment of the nuclear threat has advanced from the general to the specific. Should such a subsidy emerge, says Nakajima, sales could be 100 times what they are now.

I sit for some time in WNI’s cramped showcase shelter, imagining the circumstances that might bring me to this bunker if I ever owned one: the mass extinction beyond its sturdily engineered walls, the irradiated cinders of civilisation blown against its air filter intake, the endless weeks cocooned with whichever loved ones made it in time, mourning those who did not. Nikita Khrushchev once speculated that the survivors of such a war would envy the dead. I agreed, and Nakajima quietly lost a customer.

The faint feeling of absurdity in WNI’s showroom points, obliquely, to a problem with the doomsday clock. Arguably the most potent symbol of humanity’s collective need to change tack, the clock is now set at just 90 seconds to midnight but seems to have lost its capacity to terrify at a time when we should be more terrified than ever before.

For while the clock is most closely associated in the public mind with the threat of nuclear war, it has long been a broader metric of imperilment from all human-made global disaster — a spectrum of risk ranging from climate change, and the denial of it, to microscopic autonomous robots.

The trouble with the clock is that, where once it was a paramount siren, it is now merely one of many alarms telling us that we are doomed. Under cover of that surfeit of fear, the clock has now gone pretty much as far as it can without being right. That is something none of us — even those with the best shelter $80,000 will buy — can afford to see proved.

February 6, 2023 - Posted by | Japan, marketing

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