YONAGUNI, Japan (Reuters) – Sonekichi Sakihara remembers encountering some of the last refugees to reach Yonaguni: four men who had sailed more than 2,000 kilometers from Vietnam to reach the inhabited island in Japan’s far west. It was 1977.
“I was out looking for stowaways from Taiwan when I found them,” Sakihara, 80, said at his family’s shop near the port, where he met the group that was among 113 Vietnamese who made the trip after the war ended.
Today, some Yonaguni residents anticipate another refugee crisis that they say their isolated location and dwindling population of fewer than 1,700 people will not be equipped to handle. Just 110 kilometers to the west, and sometimes visible from Yonaguni, lies Taiwan, the self-governing island of 24 million that China claims is its territory and which Beijing threatens with simulated missile strikes and other displays of military firepower.
Concerned about the potential for conflict, Japan embarked on its largest defense buildup since World War II. But the $290 billion spending comes without a parallel plan to prepare Yonaguni for a potential humanitarian crisis that residents like Sakihara say could quickly overwhelm their shores.
In interviews with Reuters, more than two dozen current and former Japanese officials and residents said hundreds, if not thousands of refugees, could try to reach Yonaguni in boats if China attacks Taiwan. They said Tokyo had no plan to deal with them, and local residents’ calls for help went unanswered.
“It’s as if their mouths are taped shut,” Yonaguni Mayor Kenichi Itokazu said, referring to the central government. A list of hurricanes and other crises that had visited the island was posted on a bulletin board in his town hall, including the arrival of the Vietnamese.
Itokazu said he asked Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno for help directly when he came to Yonaguni in July, but received no response again.
Some US officials say China may be ready to invade Taiwan by 2027. Chinese leader Xi Jinping told US President Joe Biden last month that there was no such plan, but he is increasing pressure on Taiwan ahead of the presidential election scheduled for January 13. Which will be announced by Vice President Lai. Cheng Ti, whom Beijing considers a separatist, is likely to win.
Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry declined to answer questions about whether it had discussed humanitarian emergencies with Japan, but said Taipei would not act rashly or give in to Chinese coercion.
A spokesman for the Japanese Cabinet Secretariat said that “if large numbers of refugees come to Japan, relevant government departments will work together to respond.”
He declined to comment on whether there was a specific plan for Yonaguni, and said he did not know whether the island’s mayor had asked Matsuno for help directly.
The people who spoke to Reuters included nine current and six former officials familiar with Japan’s emergency planning, some of whom spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly.
They said that while Taiwanese refugees could flee to Japan by sea, it is difficult to predict the nature of any conflict and the numbers that will come. The Japanese government has not publicly mentioned such a scenario.
“There may be hundreds of boats, too many to even stop the Chinese blockade,” a Japanese Coast Guard official said. He added that the Cabinet Secretariat, headed by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and managed by Matsuno, is responsible for developing the plan.
Current and former officials described the government as focusing on its military buildup rather than a complex humanitarian response plan involving multiple departments, local authorities and companies that will have to screen, transport, feed and house more refugees than Japan has ever faced. .
There were about 18,000 refugees in Japan in 2022, most of them from Myanmar, according to the Migration Policy Institute, which cited UN figures that apply a broader definition than the Japanese government. Amid the conflict in Europe and the Middle East, Germany had more than two million refugees, and Poland had nearly a million people, many of them from Ukraine.
Kevin Maher of NMV Consulting in Washington, who previously served as Japan affairs chief at the State Department, said Tokyo must make a political decision about accepting large numbers of refugees.
“Japan has been reluctant to let in large numbers, but whatever the policy, the reality is that anything that floats could go to Japan,” Maher said.
Gen. Yoshihide Yoshida, commander of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces, said he witnessed the refugee crisis caused by the Russian attack on Ukraine when he visited Poland last year.
“If something similar happened near us, we would have to provide the same kind of humanitarian response, but that should not be left to the SDF, it is up to the entire government to study it carefully,” he said in Tokunoshima in the eastern end. From the chain of islands that includes Yonaguni, where he was observing Japanese forces’ beach landing exercises on 19 November.
On that day, Taiwan Chinese aircraft were spotted over the Taiwan Strait and warships were spotted Conducting combat readiness patrols.
The Yonaguni-based SDF, about 200 strong, may be among the first to respond to any refugee crisis if, as Kishida warned last year, East Asia becomes the next Ukraine.
But in more than 100 pages of documents outlining Kishida’s military buildup, refugees are mentioned only once, in a general reference to working with the United Nations.
A US official familiar with Japanese thinking, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly, said Tokyo would be reluctant to implement specific humanitarian plans for Yonaguni because that might lead China to believe Japan is preparing for conflict in Taiwan.
Even if he had a plan for refugees, Kishida would still face an obstacle: his controversial relationship with the Okinawa government that runs Yonaguni.
Governor Denny Tamaki wants fewer US troops stationed in his prefecture, opposes Kishida’s military expansion and says the prime minister’s job is to manage migrants arriving by boat.
“Even if it is left to the local government, the authority and financial resources needed for this have not yet been clearly defined,” he said in an interview. Resentment toward Tokyo still lingers in Okinawa due to the killing of one in four of the island’s residents in World War II and the large military presence there since then.
In March, Okinawa and Tokyo officials conducted their first surface exercise to simulate the evacuation of about 120,000 residents and tourists on Japan’s southwestern islands, including Yonaguni, which they estimated would take about a week.
“There is no guarantee that people will not come from Taiwan and that it will overwhelm the system,” said Hironobu Nakabayashi, one of the training advisors, from the Research Institute of Disaster Management and Emergency Medical System at Kokushikan University.
Not enough to share
Back in Yonaguni, resident Satoshi Nagahama, 33, was surprised to learn that the government had no humanitarian plan for refugees.
“I don’t think we can handle any of them. The government will have to take them somewhere else,” he said at the island’s closest port to Taiwan, where he was removing blue marlin from fishing boats and packing them into the ice.
Even the community center that temporarily housed the Vietnamese refugees Sakihara found had been closed for a decade, its crumbling concrete walls covered in green grating.
Without government help, some residents say any refugee crisis would fall to the island’s two police officers or city hall officials, including Koji Sugama, a 65-year-old former soldier, to deal with.
Since his appointment in April to improve disaster management, one of Sugama’s tasks has been to procure emergency supplies for residents, including bottled water and ready-made meals packed in three heavy steel containers spread across the island.
“This will be enough for one day, maybe two days,” he said, standing inside one of them. “There’s not enough to share.”
Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Taipei and Kentaro Sugiyama in Tokyo; Edited by David Croshaw
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