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Japan holds evacuation drills amid Taiwan invasion fear

William Yang in Taipei
March 28, 2023

Remote islands in Japan's Okinawa prefecture have begun evacuation drills amid worries that China could attack Taiwan. But experts doubt the effectiveness of such drills.

A child puts a protective hat on while a man kneels in front of her
Various islands in Okinawa prefecture and other parts of Japan have been staging evacuation and protection drillsImage: Kyodo News/IMAGO

Citing the threat from China's aggressive military expansion, Japan has dramatically transformed its defense posture since last year, beefing up its defense budget, strengthening defense capabilities and deepening cooperation with key allies like the US and the Philippines.

Some of Japan's remote islands in the south are also enhancing their preparation for a potential military conflict across the Taiwan Strait. On March 18, Japan's Okinawa prefecture carried out its first simulated exercise that aims at evacuating around 100,000 residents from remote islands close to Taiwan. Officials are concerned about southern Japan being affected by a potential Chinese invasion of the self-ruled island, which China sees as part of its own territory. Both local and national authorities in Japan took part in the exercise which was staged in several cities on the Sakishima Islands, about 360 kilometers (224 miles) away from Taiwan.

According to Japanese media outlets, the drill simulated residents on smaller islands in the Okinawa prefecture first being taken to bigger islands like Ishigaki and Miyako, and then transferred to Okinawa's main island Kyushu. Apart from the 120,000 local residents and tourists being evacuated based on the exercise, around 1.4 million people living on or around the prefecture's main island were asked to hide indoors.

The authorities plan to extract people on civilian aircraft and vessels, and the local government in Okinawa would cooperate with airline and ferry companies or other transportation providers to complete the task. Local authorities estimated that the entire evacuation effort could take six days.

US bases in Japan could become targets

While officials in Okinawa try to downplay the correlation between the evacuation drills and the potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan, some experts say the proximity of Okinawa to both Taiwan and China, as well as the fact that it hosts US military bases, make the prefecture "an obvious target of a Chinese attack."

"If China invades Taiwan, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) may also attack US military bases in Okinawa, which means Japan would be automatically dragged into a war with China," said Kyoko Hatakeyama, a professor at the University of Niigata Prefecture in Japan.

"Japan needs to avoid civilian deaths and casualties in Okinawa, and that's why evacuation drills are becoming more important," she told DW.

Last December, Japan's westernmost Yonaguni Island also held an evacuation drill over potential ballistic missile strikes. Yonaguni is only 110 kilometers away from Taiwan.

Aerial photo on Yonaguni Island
Yonaguni, Japan's westernmost island, has a population of around 1,700Image: Kota Kiriyama/AP/picture alliance

Government apologizes over J-Alert malfunction

Eleanor Hughes, a defense analyst at the Asia Group in the United States, told DW that the preparations are partly aimed at "bolstering synergies on crisis management" between authorities at different levels across Japan.

"One of the byproducts of these visible preparations is that it's more difficult for Japanese citizens to rule out the possibility that Japan can completely shield itself from feeling the reverberating effects of a contingency [of war], should one occur," she said.

But some experts express doubt about the effectiveness of these evacuation drills. They also note that Japan's warning system, the J-Alert system, malfunctioned when North Korea fired ballistic missiles over Japan last October. Japan's chief cabinet secretary was forced to apologize to the public over the incident.

"If the government's alert system seems to be dysfunctional, Japanese people may think: why should they be too troubled by the potential contingency?" said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan (TUJ).

"Local governments in Japan have a long way to go to ensure people living on the remote islands have adequate support if any emergencies were to happen," he told DW.

According to Kingston, it is still unclear how much support local authorities would provide. Also, communication and transport links remain limited in Okinawa, which would in turn limit the effectiveness of any evacuation plans.

Ukraine war provides insights for Japan's civilian protection

Other analysts add that it is very difficult to actually evacuate tens of thousands of people from remote islands once a military conflict breaks out. They argue that the only way to ensure the safe evacuation of civilians under these circumstances is if the warring parties reach some tacit agreement.

"From Ukraine's experience, we know evacuating civilians is very hard to do [during a war] and mass evacuation is even harder to execute," said Koichi Nakano, a political scientist at Sophia University in Japan.

Both Kingston and Nakano point to Okinawa's brutal history during World War II. The island was the site of a battle between the US army and the Japanese forces in 1945, which killed more than 200,000 people. With that in mind, many local residents view the ongoing efforts and evacuation drills with skepticism and concern.

"Many people feel like there is once again preparation to use Okinawa as a buffer in a possible military confrontation," Nakano told DW.

"The government has no choice but to acknowledge that to a certain degree, Okinawa is less safe than it used to be, and that's why they have to conduct evacuation drills. But I don't think that can really reassure the local people," he added.

Sympathy for Taiwan in Japan

Tensions in the region were running especially high last summer, when senior US lawmaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan. China saw the visit as implicit support to Taiwan's independence and responded by staging massive military drills, with several Chinese missiles reportedly landing in Japan's Exclusive Economic Zone.

Residents of the Yonaguni Island, where evacuation drills were held in December, told Japan's daily Yomiuri Shimbun that this incident made them realize the rising military threat from across the Taiwan Strait.

Also in December, Japan revealed its biggest defense budget increase since WWII, aiming to raise the defense spending to 2% of GDP and strengthen its counterstrike capabilities. In its newly-released national security strategy, Tokyo characterized China as "the greatest strategic challenge ever to securing the peace and stability of Japan." It also highlighted the fact that Beijing hasn't ruled out the possibility of using force against Taiwan

Kingston from Temple University Japan adds that issues related to Taiwan's security have been baked into Japan's foreign policy and there is longstanding sympathy and support for Taiwan in general. According to the expert, Tokyo's commitment to Taiwan will continue, regardless of who is in power.

Edited by: Darko Janjevic