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On Japan’s Yonaguni island, fears of being on the front line of a Taiwan conflict


The seashore on southwest Japan’s Yonaguni island.

Anthony Kuhn/NPR


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Anthony Kuhn/NPR


The seashore on southwest Japan’s Yonaguni island.

Anthony Kuhn/NPR

YONAGUNI ISLAND, Japan — For years it was referred to as the “Two Gun” island – one gun for every of the 2 policemen stationed right here.

Yonaguni, Japan’s most westerly island, can really feel like a peaceable paradise — it’s lined in tropical forests and hammerhead sharks glide by its azure waters.

But there’s bother on the horizon. Almost 70 miles away lies the island of Taiwan — the self-governing democracy which as soon as once more finds itself within the headlines.

On Thursday, six Chinese ballistic missiles landed in water close to Japan’s southwestern islands, certainly one of them close to Yonaguni and 5 others inside Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone, based on the Japanese authorities.

The missiles have been a part of large-scale army exercises China is conducting in response to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s in a single day journey to Taiwan this week. She is the highest-ranking elected U.S. official to go to the island in 25 years.

China sees Pelosi’s journey as a present of support for Taiwanese separatist forces. In the previous, Beijing has threatened to invade the island, if it declares independence.

The roughly 1,700 inhabitants of Yonaguni now concern that their island could possibly be on the entrance line of any battle.

The seashore on southwest Japan’s Yonaguni island.

Anthony Kuhn/NPR


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Anthony Kuhn/NPR


The seashore on southwest Japan’s Yonaguni island.

Anthony Kuhn/NPR

“During the Vietnam War, boat people came here,” says Ryuichi Ikema, the director of a historical past museum on the island. “In case of a Taiwan contingency, millions of Taiwanese could come here. We’re the closest island, and I wonder: how can we deal with it?”

For centuries, Yonaguni was a part of the semi-independent Ryukyu Kingdom, a tributary state of China and Japan. It didn’t change into part of the fashionable Japanese state till the late 1800s. For a half-century, till the top of World War II, Taiwan was a colony of Japan and commerce between Taiwan and Yonaguni flourished.

But yearly, Yonaguni residents mark the anniversary of the top of the World War II battle for the close by island of Okinawa. Nearly a 3rd of Okinawa’s inhabitants died within the combating, and that contributed to a robust sense of pacifism on Yonaguni.

Officials and residents on Yonaguni island attend a ceremony marking the anniversary of World War II’s Battle of Okinawa in 1945, during which practically a 3rd of Okinawa’s inhabitants died.

Anthony Kuhn/NPR


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Anthony Kuhn/NPR


Officials and residents on Yonaguni island attend a ceremony marking the anniversary of World War II’s Battle of Okinawa in 1945, during which practically a 3rd of Okinawa’s inhabitants died.

Anthony Kuhn/NPR

China’s rise has modified the equation. Japan has been strengthening defenses throughout its southwest islands, which kind a collection of choke factors between the East China Sea and the remainder of the Pacific Ocean.

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

The island is split on the army presence. Masateru Nakazato, who teaches at a neighborhood college and whose college students embrace youngsters of troopers on the base, says his college students generally ask him what would occur in case of a battle over Taiwan.

“I tell them, that’s why we have the self-defense forces,” he says, referring to Japan’s army. “They will protect us. And America will protect us.”

Nakazato’s spouse Yuka, although, believes constructing the bottom has broken the island’s pure surroundings and has contributed little to the native financial system.

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

Left: Horses native to Yonaguni graze on the island. Right: Tropical foliage covers a lot of the island’s roughly 11 sq. miles.

Anthony Kuhn/NPR


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Left: Horses native to Yonaguni graze on the island. Right: Tropical foliage covers a lot of the island’s roughly 11 sq. miles.

Anthony Kuhn/NPR

Japan’s sense of a rising risk from China has additionally led to a historic shift in Tokyo’s fascinated with Taiwan.

Last 12 months, Japanese officers started publicly linking Taiwan with their very own safety. Some argued that if China invades Taiwan, the U.S. and Japan ought to defend Taiwan collectively.

Masahisa Sato is a lawmaker and director of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s international affairs division. He says that if China assaults Taiwan, Yonaguni and different close by islands may change into 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 southwest islands will become a battlefield.”

Japanese media have reported that the U.S. and Japan have drafted a joint army operational plan to reply to an assault on Taiwan. But Yoji Koda, a former commander of Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force Fleet says that Japan’s pacifist structure makes such a plan a political lengthy shot — and progress seems to have stalled.

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

Back on Yonaguni island, native officers are shifting forward with plans of their very own.

“The town has already decided on an evacuation route within the island,” says Toshio Sakimoto, head of the city’s meeting. “We have asked the prefectural and central governments how to get residents to safety from there.”

The central authorities, he says, “didn’t reply for a long time, until June, when Taiwan became an issue, and they began to think about putting the evacuation issue on the table.”

Toshio Sakimoto, head of Yonaguni’s city meeting, stands exterior his enterprise, the place he distills Awamori, a 120-proof rice liquor made on Yonaguni and Okinawa.

Anthony Kuhn/NPR


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Anthony Kuhn/NPR


Toshio Sakimoto, head of Yonaguni’s city meeting, stands exterior his enterprise, the place he distills Awamori, a 120-proof rice liquor made on Yonaguni and Okinawa.

Anthony Kuhn/NPR

The plan, Sakimoto says, is to get all of the island’s inhabitants to its airport and harbors inside three days of authorities receiving information of threats.

Where they will go from there, he says, stays unclear.

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



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