Japanese military vessels have become regular visitors to the island.

China-Taiwan tensions jolt
sleepy Japanese island

April 20, 2023

The tiny island of Yonaguni, Japan’s westernmost point, is about as far from Tokyo as one can travel and still be in Japan, but it is only 110 kilometers (65 miles) from Taiwan. Geography and history have tied the two islands together since ancient peoples from Taiwan migrated northeastward to populate Yonaguni and the rest of the Ryukyu islands.

The centuries-old Ryukyu Kingdom, centered on Okinawa, was annexed by Japan 16 years before Japan’s victory over China’s decaying Qing Dynasty in 1895 led to the absorption of Taiwan into the Japanese Empire. Yonaguni turned into a “satellite island” of Taiwan, a close relationship that carried on after Japan’s World War II surrender in 1945 and the occupation of the Ryukyu islands by the U.S.-led Allied Forces. Yonaguni became a bustling smuggling hub, but the business faded and the population dwindled after the U.S. left in 1972.

Fast forward over five sleepy decades to August 2022, when China’s People’s Liberation Army rained missiles down in waters off Yonaguni in a show of anger over the visit to Taiwan by the then U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The barrage reminded islanders of their intertwined fate with Taiwan.

Japan is hardening up the islands separating the East China Sea from the Western Pacific, part of plans to double defense spending over five years. Tokyo's biggest military build up since World War II aims to deter China from attacking Taiwan or nearby Japanese islands. Yonaguni islanders welcome protection from Chinese aggression, but fear sparking more hostility from Beijing.

Part I: Taiwan’s ‘satellite’ island

Islanders are feeling the impact of China’s hostile stance toward Yonaguni’s historic close neighbor Taiwan.

Part II: Japan’s frontier island

‘Until recently we still thought that, as the economic situation in China improved, they’d become friendlier to us.’

Part III: Preparing for a Taiwan crisis

Talk of a new electronic warfare unit in Yonaguni and a missile base on Ishigaki island has rattled some residents.

Reporting by RFA
Photos: RFA, AFP, AP, Reuters, Okinawa Prefecture's Archive, Taiwan Presidential Office
Edited by Paul Eckert, Matthew Pennington
Video by Paul Tuan, Beryl Huang
Graphics by Amanda Weisbrod
Visual editing by H. Léo Kim, Paul Nelson
Web page produced by Minh-Ha Le
Produced by Radio Free Asia
© 2023 RFA
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