Yonaguni, Japan’s most westernmost inhabited island (pop. 1745), lies 111 km from Hualien (Taiwan), but more than 2000 km from Tokyo. Yonaguni is part of the Sakishima Islands that include the Yaeyama Islands to the west near Taiwan and the Miyako Islands 250 km further east. Yonaguni is 500 km west of the heavily militarized main island of Okinawa. For the moment, Yonaguni maintains the appearance of an idyll for ecotourism and diving, but its tranquility is threatened by geopolitical tensions.
In November 2010, 1040 hectares of the small island were dedicated as a national-level Wildlife Protection Area. It is an important stopping point for migratory birds heading north in the spring from Southeast Asia to as far as Siberia, but it is also home to a number of species usually considered endemic to Taiwan. On a clear day, one can see the high mountains of Taiwan from Cape Irizaki. A large number of raptors, and even some occasional rooks, make their way across the waters quite easily.
In the first days of spring, I arrived in Yonaguni on a Japanese birding expedition, noting happily that our aircraft on Ryukyu Air Commuter was a brand-new Bombardier Q400. One trip highlight was searching for the Oriental pratincole (Glareola maldivarum), which migrates between wintering grounds in Australia and Indonesia and breeding sites in Mongolia and China. It is rarely seen in Japan, but occasionally shows up in Taiwan or Yonaguni.
Various small brown birds blend into the landscape of the wind-swept Agarizaki Cape, a grassy slope covered with Yonaguni horses and cows. Since they are the same colour, the birds get both camouflage and nutrients from the manure. This is clearly an evolutionary adaptation to the presence of so many raptors, but also creates a welcome challenge for adventurous birders. To everyone’s surprise, I was the first to spot the elusive Oriental pratincole on a foot-trodden path heading toward the lighthouse.
Our guide instructed us to be silent, and to line up with our cameras and birding scopes. Only after the bird got accustomed to our presence could we slowly move closer. We then took some pictures before advancing closer for even better shots. This was the only successful tactic for an acceptable photo of the bird at close range.
I noticed a Japanese coast guard patrol to the north and took a photo. Our local guide explained that the uninhabited Senkaku Islands (claimed spuriously by China) lie to the north and that China has been increasingly aggressive in its naval activities. “It’s very dangerous,” he said.
Japan’s Ministry of Defence annual White Paper documents the urgency of the situation. Since 2013, the Chinese navy has increasingly intruded into Japan’s territorial waters. In December 2016, China’s aircraft carrier Liaoning passed between Miyako and the Okinawa main island. In the same year, the number of scrambles by Japan’s Self-Defence Forces (SDF) exceeded 1000 for the first time since measures against airspace violations began in 1958. Japan had little choice but to construct the Yonaguni Coast Observation Unit in 2016 to monitor Chinese activities. This unit houses 160 soldiers — adding more than 10% to Yonaguni’s population.
Our route took us past part of the new military outpost. When one of the women inquired about a newly built orange building, the guide replied, “It is a new SDF installation. Photography is not permitted here. If we take photos of plovers here, we will end up with our arms up in the air.”
The Ministry of Defence labels China’s aggressive actions as “grey-zone situations.” These are neither peacetime nor contingency situations in which one party shows physical force on a regular basis with the goal of forcing change in the status quo over territory, sovereignty, or maritime economic interests. By regularly sending military forces through these groups of islands, China fails to respect Japan’s territorial integrity. China claims that its forces are legally passing through international waters and are not aimed at any state in particular. China, however, would surely react strongly if Japan or another country were to make similar incursions through the equally international waters of the Taiwan Strait.
China’s stalking strategy is much like our approach to the Oriental pratincole. The goal is to slowly move forward until our target gets used to our presence and lets down its guard. Japan’s decision to increase its military presence on the Yaeyama Islands shows that humans are more wary than birds. Not only is flying away not an option, but the stakes are also much higher. The militarization of those islands, however, will come at a cost to local inhabitants by disturbing fishing. It will also restrict the space that can be used for agriculture, ecotourism, and wildlife conservation.
On March 28, the 84-year-old Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, on their first visit to Yonaguni, paid a visit to the stone monument marking Japan’s western point. As probably his last visit to Okinawa before his abdication next year, this highlights the importance of Yonaguni and the surrounding islands to Japan.
I ruminated on these geopolitics as we headed into the village to buy ice cream. One variety was made from Canadian maple syrup and walnuts, but I chose local red taro. One fellow birder told me that she has visited Canada three times: to watch the Northern Lights in Yellowknife, to hike the Rocky Mountains, and to visit Niagara Falls.
More than 80 years of peace have given Japan and Canada unprecedented prosperity, which permits me to visit Yonaguni, while bringing Canadian products to Okinawa and Japanese tourists to Canada. We take this situation for granted, but the current peace may only be a calm prelude to conflict if China continues efforts to expand beyond its current borders. Strong diplomacy is needed to persuade China to accept the status quo as a responsible member of the international community. Those efforts could fail if China’s recent nationalist fervor carries more sway than economic rationality.
Scott Simon is exploring human–bird relations while doing anthropological field research in Japan, funded by the National Museum of Ethnology (Japan) and SSHRC, as part of a research project entitled “Austronesian Worlds: Human–Animal Entanglements in the Pacific Anthropocene.”