Pushing out the boats - The Forecast 14 - Magazine | Monocle

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Commanding officer Captain Yoshitaka Morimoto on the lookout

With its sugar-cane fields, sun-drenched beaches and clear, subtropical waters, Ishigaki Island could hardly look less like the front line of a conflict. But this small dot in southern Japan lies a little more than 300km from Taiwan and about 170km from the rocky, uninhabited Senkaku Islands (known as Diaoyu by China), which are administered by Tokyo but claimed by both Beijing and Taipei. If the dispute over the islands heats up or China invades Taiwan, sleepy Ishigaki might suddenly find itself uncomfortably close to the action.

For now the island’s two faces – a holiday destination and a strategic military base – coexist quite peacefully. Tourists can go snorkelling and sample the local cuisine (its tender beef is a speciality), happily oblivious to the geopolitical storm threatening to break at sea. The urban centre, also called Ishigaki, is Japan’s southernmost city; with a population of 49,000, the island is the Yaeyama archipelago’s commercial hub. Beyond it, roads lead to farms, beach resorts and popular sunset spots.

As China makes its presence felt in the region, Japan has increased the visibility of its Coast Guard. Hardly a day passes when Chinese Coast Guard vessels don’t enter the waters around the Senkaku Islands; in 2022 they sailed within this contiguous zone for a record 336 days, up from 171 in 2017. Japan’s 11th Regional Coast Guard, which covers Ishigaki, has more than doubled in size since 2010, rising from 820 personnel to 1,972. In that time, its fleet has grown from 26 ships to 50 and the number of aircraft has risen from 11 to 15.

Rear Admiral Mitsuaki Nakata is the commander of the Ishigaki Coast Guard Office. What would once have been a quiet posting is now a high-profile role. His office, which has a staff of 45, is a stone’s throw from Ishigaki Port, which boasts an impressive line-up of Coast Guard boats. Day and night, patrol vessels rotate in and out of the port, keeping a close eye on what Chinese boats are up to around the disputed islands. “We make sure that we can outnumber them,” says Rear Admiral Nakata.

Captain Morimoto (second from left) with colleagues on board ‘Patrol Vessel Tarama’

Water margins
In terms of vessel numbers, the China Coast Guard’s fleet far surpasses that of Japan: in 2023 it already had more than twice as many vessels exceeding 1,000 tonnes. This disparity is only expected to grow. With its larger boats and upgraded equipment, China is able to increase its presence in disputed waters, even at long distances from the coast. The Japan Coast Guard can’t compete but is hoping for an uplift in its budget for the next financial year from ¥243bn (€1.5bn) in 2023 to ¥275.9bn (€1.75bn). It is also seeking to add 432 new staff to its current total of nearly 14,700 by 2025 and, in the longer term, boost its number of large patrol vessels from 71 to 90 by 2028.

Mobile Rescue Technician Ryuta Hokama at Ishigaki Air Station

“And if we don’t have enough in Ishigaki, we’ll call in others.” China’s almost permanent presence in the contiguous zone isn’t illegal but its vessels now cross over into Japan’s territorial waters two or three days a month. “When they do that, we escort them out,” Nakata tells monocle. The aim, he says, is to keep things peaceful. “Tensions have increased in this region but no matter what the security situation is, we perform our role, which is to act as the police. We stick to the law and do so calmly. We don’t want to provoke a conflict.”

The Japan Coast Guard is keen to differentiate its role from that of the Japan Self-Defense Forces (sdf), which are still forbidden by the country’s pacifist constitution from military aggression. Coast Guard boats have guns but almost never use them – the exception being an incident in 2001 when four of its vessels clashed with a North Korean spy boat off Kyushu before it was eventually sunk.

The sdf has increased its presence on Ishigaki too. In 2023 the island received its first sdf garrison with 570 personnel. The 47-hectare site in the middle of Ishigaki was the final part of the solution to what the Japan Ministry of Defense identified as a regional security “vacuum”. It followed three other sdf garrisons that have been built on the small Okinawan islands of Yonaguni and Miyakojima, and the island of Amami-Oshima in Kagoshima. The new garrison, with its anti-aircraft and missile companies, has received mixed reactions. While some locals welcome the boost to the economy, others fear that it will make Ishigaki a target in any future conflict.

Nakata, who has served with the Coast Guard for 38 years, points out that Senkaku isn’t Japan’s only potential territorial flashpoint. “I’m from Hokkaido,” he says. “There the focus is on Russia and the Northern Territories [disputed islands claimed by both Moscow and Tokyo]. When I was in Tsushima in Nagasaki prefecture, Korea was the important factor. Here in Okinawa, it’s China. It depends on where you are in Japan but there’s always an international dimension to the job.”

Coast Guard members at Ishigaki Air Station
Coast Guard patrol vessel at Ishigaki port

The Senkaku Islands aren’t the only preoccupation of the Ishigaki Coast Guard. It has to deal with everything from maritime rescue missions and natural disasters to medical emergencies and even public education. Recent call-outs have included rescuing campers stranded on a typhoon-stricken beach, saving the crew of a sinking tanker, picking up a stand-up paddleboarder who had drifted to a neighbouring island and dealing with a variety of smuggling, including of gold, drugs and guns. Tip-offs and searches have produced an array of contraband hidden in the vast cruise ships that come into Ishigaki from Taiwan. In the port, it’s cleaning day on patrol vessel Tarama. Under the watchful eye of its captain, Yoshitaka Morimoto, its crew is scrubbing and painting the boat, which weighs more than 1,700 tonnes and is almost 100 metres long. Morimoto is on his fourth tour of Okinawa. If he spots anything untoward from the bridge, he informs the regional headquarters in the city of Naha. Most crew members live in dormitories and are sometimes out on patrol for a week. Life in the Coast Guard is peripatetic, with postings lasting only two or three years.

The Ishigaki Coast Guard has a 68-strong air base next to the airport. Established in 1972, its personnel have been making sea rescues and transporting sick people from remote islands to hospitals for more than 50 years. Its immaculate hangar looks straight onto Mount Omoto, Okinawa’s highest mountain. Diving suits hang on a rack on one side; two modified Beech 350 Super King Air planes sit alongside one of two Agusta aw139 helicopters. This is also the base of the Coast Guard’s rescue technicians, the specialists who hang off helicopters in the roughest of seas. They’re an elite group (there are only 90 in Japan), selected from the ranks of divers and trained for another nine months.

The Agusta helicopter is a bruiser, capable of carrying nearly 270kg on an 80-metre cable. “It’s easy to fly,” says chief pilot Tadakiyo Narita, who has nearly 30 years of experience behind him. “It can operate in difficult conditions, even right before or after a typhoon when most planes can’t fly.” A 1,800-watt searchlight, which is so bright that its use when flying at low altitude over land is forbidden, is a crucial tool on rescue missions, while loudspeakers beneath it are used to make announcements, such as calls to evacuate. Pilots are sometimes tasked with bringing patients from small islands into Yaeyama hospital, the region’s largest medical facility, in Ishigaki. The planes can cover great distances during search- and-rescue operations, locate the scene and drop parachute lights as markers for the teams that follow. On regular patrols, pilots are on the lookout for illegal fishing boats; if any are found, they pass on information to patrol vessels that then move the boats on.

Nakata is now too high-ranking to head out on a patrol ship but it’s something that he misses. After nearly 40 years, he would still recommend a career in the Coast Guard. “Moving from place to place can be hard on families but it has its perks,” he says. “You get to experience things that you would never have otherwise. There is a lot to learn and be proud of in this job.”

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