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Voice of America: Taiwan Tensions Fuel Anxiety on Japan’s Tiny Yonaguni Island

Kotaro Kobari was returning from an all-night fishing expedition in his small boat off the remote Japanese island of Yonaguni in August last year when his phone suddenly lit up with notifications showing phone calls and messages he had missed while at sea.

For 15 years, Kobari had made his living fishing for marlin and tuna in the waters near Yonaguni, but he had never seen anything like this – as he returned home, he found throngs of reporters waiting to ask about his close call with disaster.

Kobari did not realize he was in any danger, until journalists and colleagues told him that the Chinese military had fired a ballistic missile over Taiwan and into the waters outside Yonaguni while he was fishing.

The Chinese missile, which fell just 80 kilometers from Yonaguni, was one of five that landed that day in Japan’s exclusive economic zone, part of Beijing’s outburst over then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.

Now, Kobari, a tough-talking man in his early 60s, shrugs off the incident, though it clearly still angers him. Speaking to VOA while standing on his boat docked at Yonaguni’s main fishing port, Kobari said the “crappy” Chinese missile probably wouldn’t have hurt him anyway.

“Well, maybe it would have hurt me,” he corrects himself.

The missile incident shattered nerves on Yonaguni – a quiet, tropical paradise that has the misfortune of being located in one of the world’s tense geopolitical hotspots.

Taiwan is just 100 kilometers away, easily visible on a clear day. Yonaguni is also close to a disputed group of islands that are controlled by Japan but also claimed by China.

Traditionally, Yonaguni has been known for its thick rainforests, grassy coastal overlooks where wild horses roam free, and clear waters where divers can swim with hammerhead sharks. But increasingly, the island is drawing more attention because of its military facilities.

Gradual militarization

Yonaguni is the westernmost in a series of small Japanese islands, known as Yaeyama, that are gradually being transformed into a key line of defense as Japan embarks on its biggest military buildup since World War II.

For decades after World War II, the islands were demilitarized. Locals long joked that Yonaguni was a “two-gun island,” referring to the pair of police substations based there.

But Japanese authorities eventually began to realize the strategic significance of the islands, especially as China’s military grew stronger and more willing to project force outside its borders.

In 2016, the Japanese government built a military base on Yonaguni – mainly for surveillance. Those facilities have steadily been fortified.

Last year, authorities brought a mobile radar unit to Yonaguni to monitor Chinese patrols near the disputed Senkaku islands, which China refers to as Diaoyu.

An electronic warfare unit is set to be installed by 2024. In late December, Japan’s Defense Ministry announced plans to deploy a missile defense unit – a move some fear could endanger the island during a potential Taiwan conflict.

Shigenori Takenishi, the head of a local fishing cooperative, said he welcomed the establishment of the military base but acknowledges many locals worry about the missiles.

“Residents and islanders are very concerned that the deployment of the missile unit will make the island an offensive target for China, a hostile nation,” said Takenishi.

Public opinion shifting

In a 2015 referendum, about 60% of Yonaguni voters approved the construction of the military base. Since then, many locals say support has increased, in part because of China’s threatening behavior.

The experience of Kobari, the fisherman who was at sea during the Chinese missile incident, is instructive.

Kobari said he sees a growing number of aggressive Chinese patrols near the disputed islands.

“Even before, they were around, but recently they chase you. They follow you. They approach you – the Chinese coast guard, I think. It’s outrageous,” Kobari said. “If they hit me, there’s no way I can win that contest. It’s scary when a boat that big gets so close.”

China’s coast guard has defended its patrols near the islands, saying it is countering Japanese incursions into what it sees as Chinese territorial waters.

The situation has deepened Kobari’s animosity toward China. Not only does he support the militarization of Yonaguni, but he says Tokyo authorities should go much further to deter the Chinese Communist Party, which he calls a “cancer.”

Defense buildup

Under plans released in December, Japan will roughly double defense spending over the next five years and for the first time deploy missiles that can hit military targets in other countries.

The policies smash through decades-old taboos in Japan, which has a technically pacifist constitution drafted by the United States following Tokyo’s defeat in World War II.

In an interview with VOA, Noriyuki Shikata, Cabinet secretary for public affairs at the Japanese Prime Minister’s Office, defended the defense buildup, noting Japan’s challenging security landscape.

“Unless we acquire, for example, counterstrike capabilities, it’s not going to be enough to defend ourselves,” said Shikata.

Shikata said his government is “extremely concerned” about Chinese government patrols near the Senkaku Islands. He also said Tokyo is “opposed to any unilateral attempts to change the status quo” in Taiwan.

While China may be among the top concerns for Tokyo, there are other regional challenges, including North Korea, which is rapidly expanding its nuclear arsenal, and Russia, whose invasion of Ukraine shocked many in Japan.

Many analysts say Russia’s invasion of its weaker neighbor has played a significant role in convincing both Japanese leaders and the public to support a more assertive foreign policy.

“There is just one thing that matters – that’s location,” said Tomohiko Tanuguchi, a professor at Tokyo’s Keio University who has held numerous high-profile government positions. “If Japan were in a different neighborhood, Japan would have been as pacifist as it was 45, 50 years ago.”

‘Less secure’

Many Yonaguni residents fiercely oppose the military buildup – including Fumie Kano, who runs a tourist hostel in the house where she was born and raised.

“We see how useless this military presence is, day after day. Having more military equipment doesn’t make us feel more secure. Having military equipment causes war. We shouldn’t be doing this here,” she said.

In Kano’s opinion, Tokyo should pay more attention to those in the older generation who experienced war and who oppose spending so much on weapons.

If a war broke out, Kano said she would not leave Yonaguni.

“I’d die on this island if it came to that. It’d be terrible. I love this island. I want to live here forever. I’m angry at this policy that could ruin our lives,” she said.

Voice of America

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