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Japan is strengthening defenses near its southwestern islands in case of conflict

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Japan has lodged a diplomatic protest after Chinese missiles landed in waters close to its southwestern islands. China is conducting large-scale military exercises following House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to nearby Taiwan this week. As NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports, Japan is strengthening its defenses in the area in case of a conflict.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: This is southwest Japan's Yonaguni island. It's the westernmost point in the Japanese archipelago. And even though Taiwan is only about 60 miles offshore, locals here tell me you've got to be really lucky to catch a glimpse of it. It's a crystal clear day, and I can see the mountains of Taiwan looming in the distance. Tropical forests cover much of the island's roughly 11 square miles. Hammerhead sharks glide through azure waters offshore. Native Yonaguni horses graze in pastures. Farmers grow sugarcane. Yonaguni didn't become part of the Japanese empire until the late 1800s. For half a century, until the end of World War II, Taiwan was a colony of Japan, and trade between Taiwan and Yonaguni flourished.

Every year, Yamaguchi residents mark the anniversary of the end of the World War II Battle for Okinawa. Nearly a third of Okinawa's population died in that battle. Yonaguni is a township under Okinawa Prefecture, and the battle has contributed to a pacifist movement on both Yonaguni and the main island of Okinawa. But tensions between China and Taiwan have intensified. And Ryuichi Ikema, the director of the history museum on Yonaguni, says he's concerned.

RYUICHI IKEMA: (Through interpreter) During the Vietnam War, boat people came here. 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?

KUHN: For a long time, locals called this a two-gun island, one for each of the two policemen on Yonaguni. In 2016, the government built a military base and stationed about 160 soldiers on Yonaguni. The island's residents and even some families are divided about the base. Masateru Nakazato teaches at a local school. He says his students sometimes ask him what would happen in case of a conflict over Taiwan.

MASATERU NAKAZATO: (Through interpreter) I tell them that's why we have the self-defense forces. They will protect us, and America will protect us.

KUHN: But Nakazato's wife, Yuka, sees things differently.

YUKA: (Through interpreter) I don't know what to say. But I have never felt having the base here makes us safer.

KUHN: Last year, Japan's public position on the Taiwan issue saw a major shift. Officials began publicly linking Taiwan with Japan's security. Some argued that if China invades, the U.S. and Japan should defend Taiwan together. Masahisa Sato is a lawmaker and director of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's foreign affairs division. He says that if China attacks Taiwan, Yonaguni and other nearby islands could get in China's way.

MASAHISA SATO: (Speaking Japanese).

KUHN: "It's 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 military operational plan, or OPLAN, to respond to an invasion of Taiwan. But Yoji Koda, a former commander of Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force fleet, says that cooperation on the plan seems to have stalled.

YOJI KODA: I think USINDOPACOM has its own OPLAN. But if your question is, do U.S. and Japan together have the joint or combined operational plan? The answer is no.

KUHN: INDOPACOM is the U.S. military's Indo-Pacific Command. Koda explains that Japan is constrained by its constitution, which forbids it from mobilizing its military unless there's a direct attack on Japan. Officials in Yonaguni, meanwhile, are thinking about how to protect residents. Toshio Sakimoto is the head of Yonaguni's town assembly.

TOSHIO SAKIMOTO: (Through interpreter) The town has already decided on an evacuation route within the island. We have asked the prefectural and central governments how to get residents to safety from there.

KUHN: The plan, Sakimoto says, is to get all the island's roughly 1,700 inhabitants to airports and harbors on the coast within three days. But where they'll go from there, he says, is unclear.

SAKIMOTO: (Through interpreter) The central government 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.

KUHN: Japan's military reportedly plans to expand the military base on Yonaguni and put anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles on neighboring islands. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Yonaguni Island, Japan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.