Japanese island holds disaster drill in shadow of Taiwan threat

By Tim Kelly

YONAGUNI, Japan (Reuters) – Japan on Sunday conducted a tsunami evacuation drill on its westernmost island, an exercise that could also help residents respond to an emergency arising from any attempt by China to take control of nearby self-ruled Taiwan, an official said.

About 200 island officials and members of Japan’s military, known as the Self-Defence Force (SDF), took part in the exercise on Yonaguni, Japan’s westernmost island, 2,000 km (1,240 miles) southwest of the capital, Tokyo.

But SDF helicopters and landing craft from ships that had sailed more than 1,000 km (620 miles) from the main Japanese islands were unable to join the exercise because of strong winds.

“We can’t choose the time when we will face a disaster. We have to think about the worst thing that can happen and plan for that,” the mayor of Yonaguni, Kenichi Itokazu, told officials at the island’s town hall at the start of the drill.

Japan is prone to earthquake-triggered tsunami. Nearly 20,000 people were killed by one on the northeast coast of its main island of Honshu in 2011.

But Koji Sugama, the Yonaguni official in charge of preparing the island’s 1,700 residents for disasters, said the community also had to be prepared for the danger of conflict.

“Today we conducted a disaster drill, but it also gives people something to think about that will come in useful in a Taiwan emergency,” Sugama said.

Yonaguni is only 110 km (68 miles) from Taiwan. In August last year, China fired missiles into nearby waters in response to a visit to Taiwan by the then U.S. House speaker, Nancy Pelosi.

China claims Taiwan as its territory and has never ruled out the use of force to take control of it.

Concern over China’s increased military activity, as well as worry that Russia’s attack on Ukraine could embolden Beijing to strike Taiwan, prompted Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to unveil a plan to double defence spending over the next five years.

About 180 Yonaguni residents came to the island’s only junior high school to watch the first such exercise in four years. Troops stationed at an island army camp, that was opened in 2016 as part of a programme to reinforce Japan’s island outposts, provided lunch and foot baths.

(Reporting by Tim Kelly; editing by Robert Birsel)