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On Japan’s Yonaguni Island, people fear being on the front lines of a Taiwan conflict: NPR

Written by Javed Iqbal

The beach on southwestern Japan’s Yonaguni Island.

Anthony Kuhn/NPR


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The beach on southwestern Japan’s Yonaguni Island.

Anthony Kuhn/NPR

YONAGUNI ISLAND, Japan – For years it was known as “Two Gun” Island – one gun for each of the two policemen stationed here.

Yonaguni, Japan’s westernmost island, can feel like a peaceful paradise – it’s covered in tropical forests and hammerhead sharks glide through its azure waters.

But there are problems on the horizon. Almost 70 miles away is the island of Taiwan – the self-governing democracy that is once again finding itself in the headlines.

Thursday six Chinese ballistic missiles landed in waters near Japan’s southwestern islands, one of them near Yonaguni and five others within Japan’s exclusive economic zone, according to Japanese authorities.

The missiles were part of large-scale military exercises China is acting in response to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s overnight trip to Taiwan this week. She is the highest-ranking elected US official to visit the island in 25 years.

China sees Pelosi’s trip as a show off support for Taiwanese separatist forces. In the past, Beijing has threatened to invade the island if it declares independence.

The roughly 1,700 residents of Yonaguni now fear their island could be on the front lines of any conflict.

The beach on southwestern Japan’s Yonaguni Island.

Anthony Kuhn/NPR


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Anthony Kuhn/NPR


The beach on southwestern Japan’s Yonaguni Island.

Anthony Kuhn/NPR

“During the Vietnam War, boat people came here,” says Ryuichi Ikema, the director of a history museum on the island. “In case of an emergency from Taiwan, millions of Taiwanese could come here. We are the closest island, and I wonder: how can we handle it?”

For centuries Yonaguni was part of the semi-independent Ryukyu Kingdom, a tributary of China and Japan. It only became part of the modern Japanese state in the late 19th century. For half a century, until the end of World War II, Taiwan was a colony of Japan, and trade between Taiwan and Yonaguni flourished.

But every year the residents of Yonaguni mark the anniversary of the end of World War II match for the nearby island of Okinawa. Nearly a third of Okinawa’s population died in the fighting, contributing to a strong sense of pacifism at Yonaguni.

Officials and residents of Yonaguni Island participate in a ceremony marking the anniversary of the World War II Battle of Okinawa in 1945, in which nearly a third of Okinawa’s population died.

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Officials and residents of Yonaguni Island participate in a ceremony marking the anniversary of the World War II Battle of Okinawa in 1945, in which nearly a third of Okinawa’s population died.

Anthony Kuhn/NPR

China’s rise has changed the equation. Japan has strengthened defense across its southwestern islands, which form a series of choke points between the East China Sea and the rest of the Pacific.

In 2016, the government built a military base on Yonaguni and stationed about 160 soldiers on it tasked with monitoring waterways and airspace.

The island is divided on the military presence. Masateru Nakazato, who teaches at a local school and whose students include the children of soldiers on the base, says his students sometimes ask him what would happen in the event of a conflict over Taiwan.

“I tell them, that’s why we have the Self-Defense Forces,” he says, referring to Japan’s military. “They will protect us. And America will protect us.”

However, Nakazato’s wife Yuka believes that the building of the base has damaged the island’s natural environment and has not contributed much to the local economy.

“I’ve never felt that having the base here makes us safer,” she says.

Left: Horses native to Yonaguni graze on the island. Right: Tropical foliage covers much of the island’s approximately 11 square kilometers.

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Left: Horses native to Yonaguni graze on the island. Right: Tropical foliage covers much of the island’s approximately 11 square kilometers.

Anthony Kuhn/NPR

Japan’s sense of a growing threat from China has also led to a historic move in Tokyo’s thinking about Taiwan.

Last year, Japanese officials began publicly linking Taiwan to their own security. Some argued that if China invades Taiwan, the United States and Japan should defend Taiwan together.

Masahisa Sato is a legislator and director of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s foreign affairs department. He says that if China attacks Taiwan, Yonaguni and other nearby islands could become targets.

“It is actually important for China to attack the island of Taiwan from both sides,” he says. “If they attack from the east, Japan’s southwestern islands will become a battlefield.”

Japanese media have reported that the United States and Japan have drawn up a joint military operation plan to respond to an attack on Taiwan. But Yoji Koda, a former commander of Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force fleet, says Japan’s pacifist constitution makes such a plan a political longshot — and progress appears to have stalled.

“If your question is: Do the United States and Japan together have a joint or combined operations plan, the answer is no,” he says.

Back on Yonaguni Island, local officials are moving ahead with their own plans.

“The city has already decided on an evacuation route within the island,” said Toshio Sakimoto, head of the city assembly. “We have asked the prefecture and the central governments how to get the residents to safety from there.”

The central government, he says, “didn’t respond for a long time until June, when Taiwan became an issue and they started thinking about putting the evacuation issue on the table.”

Toshio Sakimoto, head of Yonaguni’s town assembly, stands outside his shop where he distills Awamori, a 120-proof rice liquor made in Yonaguni and Okinawa.

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Toshio Sakimoto, head of Yonaguni’s town assembly, stands outside his shop where he distills Awamori, a 120-proof rice liquor made in Yonaguni and Okinawa.

Anthony Kuhn/NPR

The plan, Sakimoto says, is to get the island’s entire population to its airport and harbors within three days of authorities receiving news of threats.

Where they will go from there, he says, is still unclear.

Chie Kobayashi contributed to this report on Yonaguni Island and Tokyo.

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Javed Iqbal

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