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Closer to China than to the Japanese mainland, these idyllic islands confront the prospect of war

Stephanie Yang, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

ISHIGAKI, Japan — At the first blare of air raid sirens, the people milling about in a grassy park barely stirred. Five-year-old Tae Sano clung to her mother's hand.

Some of the people around her, all wearing bright-yellow bibs, took a few uncertain steps. But the only real urgency came from a man in a blue uniform, jogging through the confused crowd.

"One more time," he called out through a megaphone.

When the sirens wailed anew, a voice rang through the park: "A missile was just launched. Please evacuate immediately."

This time, people moved. Ayako Sano led her three children to a nearby auditorium, where they crouched, hands over their heads, and waited for the drill to end. The exercise, the first for the island city of Ishigaki — closer to China and Taiwan than to the Japanese mainland — is being repeated across the country as increasingly restive neighbors heighten concerns about war.

"Nowadays, you never know what might happen," Sano, a 37-year-old City Hall employee, said after the drill. "Not just in Ishigaki, but wherever you are in Japan."


As geopolitical tensions in Asia grow more fraught, Japan has boosted military spending to record highs, and fear has permeated even some of the country's most remote islands.

"The threat is that Ishigaki is within range of North Korean and Chinese missiles," said Mayor Yoshitaka Nakayama, who wants to expand the drill to an islandwide evacuation rehearsal. "It is important to strengthen our defenses, even though it may increase tensions."

With the regional risks compounding, Japan has veered sharply from the anti-militarist stance it adopted after World War II. A defense strategy it released in December 2022 called for doubling military spending by 2027 and developing long-range missile capabilities.

Japan is building up its military bases — including in Ishigaki and other nearby islands — and allowing the U.S. armed forces to expand an already extensive footprint in the nation. It's trying to calm citizen protests over an increased troop presence and a debate over whether the expansion will draw more danger to Japan, rather than defend it. And it is preparing its people for worst-case scenarios, with hourlong drills like the one on Ishigaki.


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