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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

While the secluded tropical tourist destination of Ishigaki may seem an unlikely target for attack, it is only 200 miles from Taiwan — the self-ruled island that Japan's historic rival China claims as its own in increasingly aggressive displays.

After Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in August 2022, Beijing launched an unprecedented series of military exercises and missile launches around that island. Five missiles landed near Ishigaki in Japan's exclusive economic zone in Okinawa Prefecture, which covers more than 150 islands between Taiwan and the Japanese mainland.

North Korea, an ally of China, also resumed firing missile tests into the waters around Japan that year.

Deteriorating relations between the United States and China have put Japan, a key U.S. ally, in a precarious position. The nation's southwestern islands, near China's eastern coast, could be among the first hit if the U.S. and China come to blows over Taiwan.

In Ishigaki, a new base for the Japanese military, known as the Self-Defense Forces, started operations last year. When construction began a few years ago across the road from his farm, Katsumi Toma questioned the need for the military outpost. But after seeing war break out in Ukraine and the Middle East, Toma, 31, changed his mind.

He now sees the camp as a necessity for the island's protection. The fear that comes from living so close to an increasingly bellicose China supersedes his concerns that enlargement could infringe on his pineapple and sugar cane fields.

 

"I thought of war as something that happened far away," Toma said. "If I could, I would oppose the camps. But the way things are going now, I don't think we have a choice."

The new Ishigaki camp has enabled the U.S. Marine Corps, which brought in a coastal unit last year, to start training drills around the island with Japanese troops. As its relationship with China has turned more adversarial, the United States has worked to bolster defensive partnerships with allies in the Asia-Pacific like Australian and Japan.

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Not all residents in parts of Japan that might be vulnerable have embraced this approach. Some 250 miles away from Ishigaki, wariness of both U.S. and Japanese militarization runs deep on the main island of Okinawa, which was devastated by the U.S. assault during World War II.

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