February 16, 2023
TOKYO – Amid increased tensions with China and fears of a Taiwan contingency, momentum is building for new liner services to link Yonaguni Island in Okinawa Prefecture to Taiwan’s main island.
Through to the 1950s, Taiwan, which was once under Japanese rule, formed a single economic sphere with Yonaguni Island, which is located only 111 kilometers away, and the two islands have maintained ties to some extent. With peace now threatened, residents of both islands are hoping to reconnect with their “compatriots.”
In early October last year, Wei Chia-hsien, the mayor of Hualien, a city in eastern Taiwan, and others arrived at Yonaguni Airport. 2022 marked the 40th anniversary of the sister city relationship between Yonaguni and Hualien. Yonaguni Mayor Kenichi Itokazu and islanders held a party at a community center to welcome these visitors with traditional performing arts and deepen their friendship.
Weather permitting, Taiwan can be seen from an observatory on Irizaki cape at the western end of Yonaguni. Taiwan is less than 30 minutes away by air, but there are currently no direct flights or liners between the two islands.
Wei and members of the delegation reached Yonaguni via Fukuoka and Naha as direct flights to Naha were suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“[Yonaguni] is not fulfilling its role as the western gateway to Japan,” Itokazu said with some embarrassment.
For the 50 years Japan ruled Taiwan, between 1895 and 1945, people and goods moved freely between Yonaguni and Taiwan. Yonaguni prospered as a transit hub for smuggling between Japan and Taiwan for several years after World War II, and its population totaled about 12,000 in 1947. However, the U.S. military, which assumed control of Okinawa Prefecture after the war, eventually put an end to such illicit trade. This prompted residents to move off the island in search of work. The population of the remote island has now dwindled to about 1,700.
Special zone never realized
Yonaguni revived cultural exchanges with Taiwan and concluded a sister city agreement with Hualien in 1982, when the island’s population was continuing to decline. Yonaguni decided not to merge with Ishigaki and other municipalities during the period of major municipality mergers in the Heisei era (1989-2019). It instead worked out its own “vision of self-reliance” in 2005 that called for the promotion of exchanges with Taiwan, which has an economic zone covering some 23 million people.
The Yonaguni municipal government drew up plans to create a “special zone for cross-border exchanges,” which was to include direct liner services to and from Hualien, and filed applications twice, in 2005 and 2006, for a central government initiative for establishing special zones for structural reform. However, the central government rejected the plans, citing a lack of port facilities and a paucity of previous arrivals by port. Yonaguni’s vision was dashed.
Nevertheless, the municipality has steadily continued to promote exchanges with Taiwan such as through homestays for elementary school students. In May 2007, it opened a liaison office in Hualien, taking an unusual step for a municipality. Without the aid of national level diplomacy, Yonaguni was attempting to attract tourists and develop distribution routes.
“In the past, Yonaguni fishermen would sell fish in Taiwan and do some shopping there before returning to the island,” said Chiyoki Tasato, a 65-year-old former municipal employee who spent six months in Taiwan working at the liaison office. “There is still a sense on both sides that we are ‘compatriots.’”
While in Taiwan, Tasato visited town halls and companies during the day, and at night went out drinking with locals. Although the liaison office is now closed, Tasato said, “Yonaguni’s economy will change if shipping routes are established and exchanges become more vibrant.”
High hopes for new wharf
Yonaguni now has a strategy to build its track record for what the central government indicated the island was lacking. As part of the plan, the municipality has since fiscal 2018 been making preparations to test high-speed ship services. It aims to create a record of port arrivals and link this to the development of facilities for quarantine, customs and other functions needed for an international port. In fiscal 2020, the project was selected to receive subsidies from the central government’s budget to promote economic development in Okinawa. Although the pandemic has caused delays, Yonaguni intends to launch the high-speed liner services test project in fiscal 2023 or later.
In May 2022, a mayor and other residents of eastern Taiwan responded to such moves in Yonaguni by establishing an alliance to launch direct services between Yonaguni and Taiwan.
In view of a possible contingency in Taiwan, Yonaguni has asked the central government to build a new wharf that can be used by large vessels for the smooth evacuation of islanders, while hoping that the private sector can use the wharf during normal times.
Yonaguni is seeking to be more like Tsushima, a border island in Nagasaki Prefecture that has attracted a large number of South Korean tourists. Hopes are high that demand will surge once it becomes easy to access Yonaguni.
“The decline in the population can be halted by developing a port and enabling freer exchange with Taiwan,” Itokazu said.