The Island Paradise Near the Front Line of Tensions Over Taiwan

ISHIGAKI, Japan — For decades, Testuhiro Kinjo’s biggest worry was defending his mango trees against typhoons and marauding insects.

That was before the Japanese government decided to deploy missile launchers near his property on Ishigaki, a small, subtropical island just 200 miles from Taiwan.

Over the past year, as China has carried out ever more overt displays of military force around Taiwan, Japan has grown increasingly concerned about the possibility of being drawn into a superpower conflict in its own backyard.

The missile installation going up on Ishigaki is intended to protect Japan. But if Beijing were ever to invade Taiwan, the anti-ship and antiaircraft systems could in theory be turned on Chinese military fleets. That could make the Japanese garrison a tempting target for China — and put Mr. Kinjo’s greenhouses in the line of fire.

“I wonder if I can continue living here in safety,” Mr. Kinjo, 66, said as he sat in his spacious home, a scroll with the word “endurance” written in thick calligraphic ink on the wall behind him.

For now, few believe that China will act imminently on its long-held goal of unifying with Taiwan. Still, the rising tensions between Beijing and Washington — Japan’s top ally — over the fate of the democratically governed island increase the risks of military confrontation that could sweep in all three of the world’s largest economies.

The long-planned missile batteries on Ishigaki, part of a larger package of military upgrades to Japan’s remote southwestern islands, reflect a shift in Japanese views on China that has accelerated with the recent discord over Taiwan.

Not long ago, Japan saw China primarily as an economic opportunity, even as tensions sometimes flared over territorial disputes, the legacy of World War II and trade issues. The idea that Beijing posed a serious threat to national security was largely a right-wing preoccupation.

But the calculus has changed. Across the political spectrum, Japanese politicians now express concern about China’s human rights violations in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. They worry about China’s dominance of the world’s supply chains. And they see a security challenge from a growing military power that is not only threatening Taiwan but also encroaching on the Senkakus — uninhabited islets, known as the Diaoyu in Chinese, administered by Japan but claimed by Beijing.

Over the last year, as the pandemic has stoked an assertive Chinese nationalism and the United States has intensified its competition with China, there has been “a huge perceptional change in Japanese society,” said Chisako Masuo, an assistant professor at Kyushu University who specializes in Sino-Japanese relations.

“What is happening now is that people are trying to prepare for the worst situation, maybe not a war, but the possibility that economic stability may be affected by China in the long run,” Ms. Masuo said.

The evolution in political views has been particularly noticeable on the issue of Taiwan, with which Japan has long shared cultural, economic and security interests, said Corey Wallace, an assistant professor at Kanagawa University in Yokohama who studies Japan’s foreign and security policy.

Standing up for the island — a Japanese colony for five decades — was long seen in Japan, especially among the left, as taboo and an impediment to better political and economic relations with mainland China. Beijing vociferously objects to any hint of support for a declaration of Taiwan independence.

But as China has become more repressive at home and assertive abroad, there is a growing recognition in Japan of Taiwan as “a more positive and constructive expression of democratic values and development,” with its own “legitimate, separate society,” Mr. Wallace said.

Japan has expressed a sense of brewing crisis over Taiwan. The country’s annual defense white paper, published in July, included a section on the island for the first time, warning that growing tensions between Chinese and American forces could pose a serious risk to regional stability.

Some Japanese policymakers fear that a conflict over Taiwan could provide China an opportunity to take the Senkakus or even the southernmost Okinawan islands. Beijing currently makes no claims on the archipelago, but it has in the past, and the issue of its sovereignty has been raised by Chinese academics and in state-run media.

Japanese defense hawks have grown bolder in their long-stalled pursuit of revisions to the country’s pacifist Constitution, arguing that China’s actions could destabilize the region — a view encouraged by U.S. officials who have urged Japan to take a broader security role.

Early this month, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told a security forum that “a Taiwan emergency is a Japanese emergency,” and therefore an issue for the U.S.-Japan alliance. But it is unclear what actions Japan could take under current law if conflict broke out over Taiwan.

Japan is working to improve its military readiness within its constitutional mandate of self-defense. While officials have carefully avoided suggesting that their preparations are aimed at any one country, they have increased both military spending and the number of military exercises conducted with the United States and other allies.

Japan’s defense ministry requested sharp increases in its budget this year, in response to what it called a rapidly worsening security environment. Funds in a supplementary request made in November would be used to expedite preparations for the new missile deployments on Ishigaki.

The front line is a familiar position for inhabitants of the Ryukyu Island chain, of which Ishigaki is part.

China and Japan spent centuries jostling for control of the archipelago, once an independent kingdom. During World War II, the islands endured some of the Pacific theater’s bloodiest infantry battles. Once U.S. forces arrived, they never left: The main island, Okinawa, continues to host a large American military installation.

Ishigaki’s proximity to the Senkakus has long made it a destination for hawkish Japanese politicians hoping to burnish their national security credentials. The island is home to Japan’s largest Coast Guard office, which devotes significant resources to patrolling the Senkakus.

But like most Japanese, people on Ishigaki long saw China more as a source of commerce than of danger. Its white sand beaches and rainbow-hued coral reefs drew cruise ships full of Chinese shoppers. The standoffs near the Senkakus were mostly a threat to the fishing industry.

The island has long been split over the missile deployment, but the growing plausibility of a Taiwan conflict has stoked existential fears.

Because of its alliance with the United States, “Japan is likely to get sucked into a conflict over Taiwan,” said Nobuo Nagahama, a local lawmaker who opposes the missile installation.

Missiles or no, comments like those made by Mr. Abe only increase the likelihood that China might target Ishigaki, he believes: “There are a lot of infrastructure projects that could potentially have a military use.”

Like many on Ishigaki, Chosho Kiyuna is torn by his competing worries for Taiwan and his own home.

The islands have a close relationship. For decades, locals would travel by ferry to Taiwan to stock up on supplies. Mr. Kiyuna’s wife, Sachiko, is the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants who established the island’s pineapple canning industry.

But Mr. Kiyuna has also experienced the pain of living at the intersection of empires.

After World War II, U.S. occupation forces in Okinawa pushed Mr. Kiyuna’s family and hundreds of others off their property. Many went to Ishigaki, where the Japanese authorities promised a fertile “land of opportunity.” Instead, they found a malarial jungle with rocky, volcanic soil that barely yielded to the plow.

Mr. Kiyuna tried his hand at a variety of crops, planting sugar cane and vegetables before settling on mangoes.

Decades later, Mr. Kiyuna, 80, has retired from farming. He keeps the pickax he used in his fields as a souvenir of the hard labor that transformed Ishigaki into something close to the paradise he was promised.

But “if there’s a war,” he said, “it will all be blown away.”