Japan's helicopter carrier Izumo departs Yokosuka port on Monday, May 1, 2017, amid rising tension following missiles tests by North Korea. Japan's navy has dispatched its largest destroyer reportedly tasked with escorting U.S. military ships off the Japanese coast amid heightened tension on the Korean Peninsula. (Ren Onuma/Kyodo News via AP)
Yokosuka has been a pre-eminent projection of US might throughout the cold war and conflicts in Korea and Vietnam © AP

On the dot of 9:30am, when the doors of the famous Sukanagoso farmers’ market open to an impatient army of vegetable enthusiasts, the battle to find the greenest Savoy cabbage is fought with elbows and without mercy. Beyond that, it is hard to think of Yokosuka as being on a war footing.

And yet, the recent pitch of speculation makes you feel it should be. This port town, 50km to the south of central Tokyo, tucked up against one of the world’s busiest commercial ports, a huge industrial sprawl and the world’s largest urban area, is a major Japanese naval hub. It is also the headquarters of the US Seventh Fleet — a 70-vessel, 300-aircraft banquet of geopolitical muscle and the largest of America’s forward-deployed naval units.

It must therefore rank, my local barber merrily points out from his shop at a notional Ground Zero for the apocalypse, among the most obvious places for Kim Jong Un to aim one of his nuclear missiles.

The hairdresser is not, of course, the first to reach this conclusion: he could have read it in one of several recent Japanese or South Korean articles grimly citing strategic experts agreeing that Yokosuka is Japan’s juiciest initial target for annihilation. It has been an obvious centre of Pacific influence for ages. The Americans themselves attacked it as a key strategic target in 1945, taking out Japanese warships just a couple of weeks before the events of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

As Pyongyang’s vituperation and President Donald Trump’s tweeting over the possibility of war have rendered the unthinkable a bit more thinkable in the minds of some pundits, the Japanese side of Yokosuka has quietly got on with the daily grind of being theoretically right in harm’s way. When the Yokosuka city authorities finally got around to putting a “duck and cover” style public awareness video on their website a couple of months ago, the messages were decidedly mixed.

On one hand, the video seems to imply everyone is already on a panicked hair trigger. It recommends, for example, not playing the film at too high a volume, in case the short example noise of a warning siren were taken for the real thing. On the other hand, the film soundtracks mock-up footage of an incoming warhead with the kind of music used for car adverts in the 1980s, suggesting a wish to keep things light.

On the US side of this, any fear of Armageddon has always been answered with the comforting growl of superpower braggadocio. Yokosuka, in common with other US-base towns in Japan and elsewhere in the world, has learnt to live with the rowdy swash and backwash of its guests, whose numbers, appetites and capacity for chest-thumping swell when the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan returns to its home port. Talk about North Korea with anyone drinking at a bar just outside the US naval base gates, and the nuke threat is assessed robustly: “Anything you read about this is bulls***,” says one US sailor to the emphatic nods of those around him. “If he [Mr Kim] sends something this way, we take it out of the sky. Then we kill him.”

And yet, as two other US sailors explained from a Starbucks overlooking the dock where Japan’s giant helicopter carrier, the Izumo, is moored, the Yokosuka braggadocio is, these days, more measured. This is a wounded fleet, all the more raw for those wounds coming during peacetime activities. Last summer, in a pair of incidents that were separated by just two months and claimed a total of 17 lives, two Seventh Fleet destroyers, the USS Fitzgerald and the USS McCain, collided with civilian vessels.

Almost harsher than the anguish of loss, and the visuals of mangled military hardware, was the US Navy’s official assessment that both accidents were “entirely preventable”. A humbling catalogue of identified faults included leadership failures, lack of training, shortcomings in navigational skill and, arguably most damning, “hubris”.

Nearly two months on, those comments clearly still smart. Yokosuka has been a pre-eminent projection of US might throughout the cold war and conflicts in Korea and Vietnam. If its greatest test is indeed coming soon, it needs its hubris-free swagger back.

leo.lewis@ft.com

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