With concerns that a military conflict could break out in the region, Japan’s Okinawa Prefecture on March 17 carried out its first simulation drill and evacuated more than 100,000 people from Japanese islands close to Taiwan.
Authorities from both the local and national levels participated in the drills centered on the Sakishima Islands. They presumed that Japan was under increasing threat of attack from an adversarial country.
During the simulation, residents from the smaller islands were transported to the bigger Ishigaki and Miyako islands before eventually being transferred to Kyushu, Japan’s southernmost main island.
In addition to the 110,000 locals, 10,000 visitors were also evacuated. About 1.4 million people were told to take shelter on the main island of Okinawa Prefecture and the surrounding areas.
The potential of a conflict that directly threatens civilians has been highlighted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s massive military drills close to Taiwan last year.
Other regions of Japan, including Osaka and Kyoto, have also staged tabletop evacuation exercises early this year. Yonaguni Island, part of Okinawa Prefecture and only 110 kilometers to Taiwan, was also included in the recent drills.
The requirement for these drills arises as Japan’s Self-Defense Forces have been increasing their presence on the country’s southern Nansei Islands chain amid China’s military development.
The primary means of evacuating citizens will be commercial transportation rather than deploying Self-Defense Forces units. In such a crisis, eliminating threats to the nation’s security would be the Japanese Self-Defense Forces’ main priority.
The Okinawa Prefecture predicted that by increasing flight and ship traffic, more than 20,000 people could be rescued from the Sakishima Islands per day, completing the process in six days. Usually, transporting everyone from the islands would take more than ten days.
Nevertheless, the estimate does not consider evacuations at night, adverse weather, or situations when the Self-Defense Forces have to use public ports and airports.
The report noted that the number of simulations on evacuating people with urgent medical requirements or arranging shelter for evacuees is insufficient.
Why Is Japan Carrying Out Such Drills?
These evacuation drills are becoming more significant as regional tensions have increased since Nancy Pelosi, a former US House of Representatives speaker, visited Taiwan in August 2022.
Beijing considers Taiwan a breakaway province that should be reunified with the mainland. It has not ruled out using force for the reunification, if necessary.
In February 2022, Japan times reported that Kyushu conducted its first simulation exercise in January to prepare for relocating residents from distant islands in Yakushima, Kagoshima Prefecture.
Given the proximity of its southwest islands, especially the Senkakus, Japan is particularly worried about a Taiwan contingency.
Furthermore, Chinese coast guard vessels have regularly trespassed into Japanese territorial seas near the Beijing-claimed, Tokyo-controlled islets in the East China Sea.
The frequency of Chinese military exercises or displays near Taiwan has increased recently. During a major exercise that the PLA staged close to Taiwan in August 2022, Chinese intermediate-range ballistic missiles landed within Japan’s EEZ.
Thus, the Japanese public increasingly perceives China as a threat, particularly in the Senkaku Islands or the Taiwan Strait. It is well conversant with the need to strengthen Japan’s defense capabilities and its alliance with the US.
In September 2022, it was also reported that Japan plans to construct an evacuation shelter for citizens on a remote island in Okinawa in case of a military emergency close to Taiwan or the country’s southwest Nansei Islands chain.
In January 2023, the Japanese government started building an SDF base on Mageshima island in Kagoshima Prefecture, located some 40 kilometers from Yakushima island.
Residents have expressed worry that building the SDF base may increase the likelihood that Yakushima would be targeted in the event of a contingency.
Mitsuru Fukuda, a professor at Nihon University and an expert on crisis management, previously underlined that these drills are vital, but the government must also properly explain why they are being held and the dangers associated with a contingency.
In the past, it was also highlighted that the prefectures anticipated to receive evacuees were not adequately prepared. The drills demonstrate the Japanese government’s attempts to ensure that people are adequately trained in the case of an emergency.