‘Taiwan contingency’ prompts evacuation drill on Yonaguni Island

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Residents of Yonaguni Island, Okinawa Prefecture, participate in an evacuation drill in a community center on Nov. 30.

YONAGUNI, Okinawa — Yonaguni Island, Japan’s westernmost island, held its first evacuation drill on Wednesday over possible ballistic missile strikes.

Residents are concerned that the island could become embroiled in a conflict between China and Taiwan, so the town participated in a drill organized by the central and Okinawa prefectural governments to strengthen evacuation arrangements for inhabitants of the Nansei Islands, including Yonaguni.

In 10 minutes

A siren blared amid the wind and rain in the East China Sea.

“The missile alarm has sounded. Please take shelter in a building,” a police officer from the Yonaguni police station shouted as he quickly led about 20 islanders into a community center in the middle of the island.

A man was panting as he pushed a wheelchair, and a woman holding her baby participated in the drill.

The community center is built of concrete, which is said to be highly effective to protect people from a blast. The residents huddled together in windowless storerooms and corridors, waiting patiently for the “attack” to end.

Prior to the drill starting at 10 a.m., a Cabinet Secretariat official told participants that a missile could reach the island “within 10 minutes at the earliest. There is no more time for evacuation than that for a tsunami,” and asked them to evacuate to windowless rooms or close the curtains to protect themselves from shards of glass. “Cars can catch fire,” was among the important points noted by the official.

Missile ‘threat’

The Cabinet Secretariat in April reached out to municipalities about conducting drills in case of missile attacks, and the town of Yonaguni decided to participate.

Yonaguni Island is only 110 kilometers from Taiwan, and it has a population of about 1,700.

The town intends to create a fund to provide for the evacuation of residents in the event of an emergency.

An event on Aug. 4 shocked islanders. China reacted to U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan by conducting military drills around the island, and fired six ballistic missiles toward areas near Yonaguni Island. Five of them fell within Japan’s exclusive economic zone, the first time that has happened.

“I felt a threat for the first time,” said a 26-year-old resident who on the day was fishing for ruby snapper about 50 kilometers north of where the missiles hit the water.

Since then, he worries whenever he fishes. “The big ships I saw were Chinese warships, and the clouds of smoke were probably from their exercise,” he said.

Provision of shelters

Several islanders said that concerns over a possible emergency have been steadily growing for about 10 years.

Because of increased Chinese military activity, the Defense Ministry opened a Self-Defense Forces post in 2016 in the western part of Yonaguni Island. The movements of aircraft and ships are monitored using radar installed there, and a joint Japan-U.S. exercise, named Yama Sakura, is taking place this month.

Japan will continue conducting training exercises to respond to ballistic missiles and begin a study about setting up evacuation shelters. The government also aims to strengthen civilian infrastructure such as airports and ports in the event that people are forced to evacuate from the Nansei Islands.