Plan to stem population decline by hosting GSDF base splits islanders

by Nobutaka Kasai

Kyodo

Yonaguni, the westernmost inhabited island in Japan, is split over a plan to host a Ground Self-Defense Force base as a means to halt its population decline.

The government plans to set up a GSDF coast observation unit on Yonaguni for the defense of the area around the chain by the end of fiscal 2015.

The groundbreaking ceremony for constructing the unit is scheduled for Saturday, with Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera slated to attend.

On Monday, residents and town assembly members opposing the plan submitted a request to Okinawa Defense Bureau chief Hirofumi Takeda, asking for the plan and the ceremony to be canceled.

In February, angry words were exchanged between normally quiet Yonaguni residents at a meeting held by the town office, which governs the island, to explain the plan to invite GSDF troops. The meeting, in an overcrowded community center, saw a bitter confrontation between supporters and opponents of the plan.

Part of Okinawa Prefecture, Yonaguni lies more than 500 km from the prefectural capital of Naha, but only 110 km from Taiwan. When weather permits, the mountains of Taiwan can be clearly seen to the west.

In 2009, Shukichi Hokama was re-elected mayor of the town after pledging to invite GSDF troops to the island. With local debate having started several years earlier, the plan has been a focal point of every subsequent election on the island, splitting its population of around 1,550.

A woman who runs a grocery store and opposes the plan said she has suffered a drop in sales because supporters of the plan do not come to her shop anymore.

“Fighting occurs where military bases exist,” said Takashi Mikura, an 83-year-old farmer. “I wonder why we need a base here.”

Mikura pointed out that in the closing days of World War II, no U.S. troops landed on Yonaguni in the absence of any Japanese military bases, while the main island of Okinawa, where Japanese forces were stationed, became a fierce battleground.

Advocates, however, stress that a GSDF base is necessary to apply the brakes to the depopulation of the island. In addition, tensions are high in the surrounding waters because of issues such as the territorial dispute between Japan and China over a group of uninhabited islets in the East China Sea. The Japan-controlled Senkaku Islands are claimed by China, which calls them Diaoyu.

“Now is our chance” to invite a GSDF base as the central government is set to reinforce the defense of the Nansei Island chain, said Katsuji Nakajima, 48, head of the local fisheries cooperative association. The chain, stretching southwest from Kyushu to Taiwan, includes the Senkakus and Yonaguni.

GSDF members and their families would stimulate the island economy by purchasing fish, he said.

After the briefing session in February, angry opponents of the base plan asked Hokama if a pleasant life is possible in the town now that it is split into two.

“We have already contested (the issue) for eight years and there is no room left for arguing whether the deployment (of a GSDF base) is necessary,” Hokama snapped.