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Defense wants to beef up forces in Yonagunijima

Date Posted: 2011-10-14

Japan’s Defense Ministry wants to spend ¥1.5 billion (roughly $20 million) to put Japanese Ground Self Defense Forces on Yonaguni Island to protect the southern reaches of the nation from a potential Chinese invasion.

The ministry’s plan is to station the JSDF in the area by 20156 to stand watch via radar on Chinese vessels transiting the East China Sea. Negotiations are already under way with the Yonaguni Town Office to purchase land on the island, and the grumbling’s already begun on why troops shouldn’t be on the island.

Some islanders, including 55-year-old Kotoe Tajima, oppose the concept, calling the Defense Ministry’s planning too rushed, and being done without listening to the will of the people. By some accounts, about half of the island’s occupants don’t want Self Defense Forces on Yonaguni, which is 500 kilometer southwest of Okinawa’s main island, but only 110 kilometers from Taiwan. “The government is ignoring the will of the residents,” says Tajima, and many people withheld their opposition before, but now with a crisis growing they’re speaking out.”

Banners are cropping up across Yonaguni Island declaring “Deployment of the SDF is the long-cherished wish of residents,” but others say “We absolutely oppose an SDF base”. The Defense Ministry says it intends to finish buying the land by the end of next year, and will pay compensation to those affected.

With Yonaguni’s post-World War II population of 12,000 declining to fewer than 2,000 people now, the island’s mayor, Shukichi Hokama, says he welcomes to deployment as a means of boosting both the population and the economy. “There are no other ways to revitalize the island,” says Hokama.

The Defense Ministry is also toying with stationing several hundred Ground Self Defense Force troops on Miyakojima or Ishigakijima, both islands also in the East China Sea, to help defend Japan from any foreign invasion. On Yonaguni, Mayor Hokama says his concerns aren’t about defense, but about economics.

Stationing troops on Yonaguni’s nothing new. Town Assemblyman Kenichi Itokazu, who’s also vice chairman of the Yonaguni Defense Association, says “If we cannot defend our country, our economic activities or welfare services cannot exist. As an island on a national border, it’s a matter of course to strengthen defense.” Opposing Itokazu is fellow town assembly member Chiyoki Tasato, a 53-year-old opponent of the plan. “The invitation will not lead to revitalization,” he says. Opponents also are expressing fears that once the GSDF has boots on the ground, it would be easy for U.S. troops to begin using the island. And that, says Mayor Hokama, is something “I would absolutely block.”

Even Wikileaks disclosures have confirmed that the U.S. was proposing some years ago that “Yonaguni Island, as the Japanese territory forward located closest toTaiwan, could foreseeably become a hub for mine countermeasures operations in the event of a contingency in the Taiwan Straits.” Those words came from former U.S. Consul General at the American Consulate Naha, Kevin Maher. Maher, also former director of the State Department Office of Japan Affairs, had sent telegrams in June 2007, writing in regard to a U.S. Navy port call at Yonaguni Island, “This port call to Japan’s westernmost point, located only seventy miles from Taiwan, was operationally significant.”

In another reference to the Sonai Port, located near Yonaguni Airport, Maher wrote “Yonaguni Island also has a commercial airfield less than two miles from Sonai Port, with a 2,000 meter runway and a small tarmac. If helicopters used this airfield in support of mine countermeasures ships, Yonaguni Island, as the Japanese territory forward located closest to Taiwan, could become ahub for mine countermeasures operations in the event of a contingency in the Taiwan Straights.

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