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Yonaguni: Is island on frontline of China-Taiwan tensions prepared?

  • August 8, 2022
  • , Nikkei Asia , 7:55 p.m.
  • English Press

BY SHOGO KODAMA, Nikkei staff writer


NAHA, Japan — With China continuing military drills around Taiwan, Yonaguni, the westernmost inhabited Japanese island and the closest to Taiwan, has been unavoidably exposed to the rising tensions over the island that Beijing claims. Nikkei Asia has analyzed Yonaguni’s geographical features and its preparedness for an emergency situation.


Here are three things to know about the impact of China’s military exercises on Japan’s western island:


Where is Yonaguni and what kind of island is it?


Yonaguni is the westernmost inhabited island of Japan, located more than 500 kilometers from Naha, the prefectural capital of Okinawa. It takes about 80 minutes to fly to the island from Naha. The mountains on the main island of Taiwan can be seen from Yonaguni, weather permitting, as the shortest distance between them is only 111 km.


The island has a population of about 1,700 and its main industries are fishing, agriculture, animal husbandry and tourism. The Japan Ground Self-Defense Force established a garrison on the island in 2016 as part of the government’s policy of reinforcing the defense of the Nansei Islands. The role is assumed by the JGSDF’s coastal monitoring unit and a contingent force dispatched by the Japan Air Self-Defense Force.


During the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait crisis, local fishermen asked the government for the deployment of Self-Defense Force troops. In a resolution adopted in 2008, the town assembly of Yonaguni expressed hopes that the deployment of SDF troops would contribute to local vitalization, describing it as a measure to establish an infrastructure to support stable life for all islanders.


Historically, Yonaguni has a strong relationship with Taiwan. Islanders went away to work in Taiwan in the era before World War II, while foodstuffs and daily necessities were traded between the two islands. Contraband trade flourished when Yonaguni was placed under postwar U.S. control. The traffic of people and goods is limited at present in the absence of direct flights between Yonaguni and Taiwan. But Yonaguni maintains a sister city relationship with Hualien, a city in eastern Taiwan. Exchanges of elementary and junior high school students used to be conducted between them, although the program is currently suspended due to the COVID-19 crisis.


What is the impact of Chinese missiles landing in Japan’s EEZ?


With regard to the effect of Chinese military drills on the life of people on Yonaguni, there are serious concerns about adverse impacts of Chinese missiles on the local fishing industry. Following the firing of missiles on Thursday, the fishers’ association of Yonaguni called for a voluntary fishing suspension for five to eight days. But the call has had an unfavorable reaction from some association members. “Now is a key season before the Obon holiday period. Fishing near the island should not be a problem,” one of them said. On Saturday, several of the more than 30 fishing boats belonging to the association sailed out of port to fish, an association official said.


The Japan Coast Guard has issued a special warning to ships at sea, but stopped short of calling for a voluntary suspension of shipping operations. The JCG issues a special warning to remind vessels of possible risks when the SDF carries out target practice or when there are drifting objects that can hamper ships’ navigation. For China’s current military drills, it has informed the association of the affected waters as well as dates and hours set for the exercises.


The effects of the Chinese drills on islanders’ daily life and tourism are currently limited. “Concerned people outside the island get in touch with us. But we live as we usually do because we can neither see nor hear the drills,” an islander said. Many others share the view. But others are worried, saying they have no way out if war actually breaks out.


A boat running visits to undersea ruins near the island of Yonaguni operated as usual on Sunday, carrying some 20 tourists. “There has been no cancellation of reservations as a result of the Chinese military drills,” said Irifune Enterprise, a local company operating sightseeing ships and a diving shop. “The island is calmer than people outside think.”


What contingency measures does Yonaguni have in place?


Uncertainty regarding protocol for the protection of islanders has come to light since the launch of China’ military drills. Japan’s Civil Protection Act demands that prefectural and municipal governments work out civil protection plans to use as guidelines for the evacuation of citizens in the case of natural disasters or armed attacks. The town office of Yonaguni has a plan which includes the outlines of an evacuation, but does not include means of securing transportation.


“The town office can do no more than gathering residents. Joint preparations with the central and prefectural governments are indispensable because it will be necessary to evacuate them from the island before they suffer damage,” said Kenichi Itokazu, mayor of Yonaguni.


In July, the mayors of Ishigaki City and Taketomi Town, in the nearby Yaeyama Islands, and Yonaguni jointly presented a written petition to the Okinawa prefectural government, stressing that concerns about the adverse effects of China’s possible invasion of Taiwan are “growing day after day.” They called for the central and prefectural governments to map out evacuation simulations. In the current fiscal year, the prefectural government plans to conduct its first ever disaster simulation exercise in anticipation of military attacks.


Countermeasures under the Civil Protection Act become applicable only after an emergency situation such as a military attack is confirmed. Until then, measures such as evacuation directives under the Fire Service Act and the Disaster Countermeasure Basic Act play central roles.


“It is difficult to acknowledge China-Taiwan disputes as a situation in which Japan is under armed attack. Before the acknowledgment, airspace will unavoidably become a war zone,” said Toshiyuki Ito, a former admiral of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force and currently graduate school professor at the Kanazawa Institute of Technology.


Referring to the risk of collateral damage in such cases as jet fighter crashes and stray bullets, Ito said, “It is necessary to consider how to minimize losses when, for example, U.S. and Chinese fighter planes go down. Shelters and other places where residents can hide should be built in advance.”

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