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Politics & Security

In Okinawa, There Is Also a Quieter Security Threat

China's historical revisionism is a threat, but so is the lack of higher educational institutions that would encourage Okinawa youth to stay in the islands.



Children play on Kaiji Beach, Taketomi Island, accessible from Ishigaki City, in the Nansei Islands of Okinawa Prefecture. (© Sankei)

Belatedly, much attention has been given to Chinese leader Xi Jinping's recent public remarks about the historic exchanges between China and the Ryukyu Islands. His comments conveyed what that might mean for the People's Republic of China's intentions toward Okinawa, Japan's 47th prefecture. 

Xi's comments were reported on the front page of the official paper of the Chinese Communist Party, the People's Daily, on June 4. That date is also the anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre. 

Ten years earlier in May 2013, the same People's Daily published an article by an academic close to the government and CCP. The article claimed that the status of the Ryukyu Islands was "unresolved." It further said that China had territorial claims over the islands. 

Two days after that 2013 article, the related English version Global Times published an editorial. It stated that "If Japan seeks to be a pioneer in sabotaging China's rise, China can carry out practical input, fostering forces in Okinawa that seek the restoration of the independence of the Ryukyu Chain."

Clearly, the assertions had no connection to historical facts or to Japan's administration over the past 150 years. Rather, they were a brazen political effort to promote China's geostrategic ambitions. 

In this sense, Xi and his propaganda arms truly telegraph what the People's Republic of China's intentions are. Thus, their commentary should be taken very seriously. That includes the external aggression and internal machinations that follow through political and other types of warfare.

Senkaku Islands
A Japan Coast Guard patrol vessel navigates alongside a Chinese Coast Guard ship to prevent it from approaching a research vessel. January 30, 2023, off the Senkaku Islands in Ishigaki City, Okinawa Prefecture. January 2023. (©Sankei by Hiroshi Kawase)

The Quieter Threat

But there is another quieter, less publicized threat facing the Nansei Shoto (islands). Particularly the outer islands. Indeed, it is a homegrown threat facing the island group, particularly its outer islands.

It is the issue of depopulation. This has been a challenge in the area for years, if not for decades. There has been an influx of people moving to some islands from the outside. However, it is not enough to stem the decline.

Senkaku Islands
A research team from Tokai University pilots a drone during an aerial survey of Uotsuri Island, one of the Senkaku Islands. January 30, 2023. (© Sankei by Hiroshi Kawase)

Today in the Nansei Islands

Recently I made my dozenth trip to Miyakojima and its surrounding islands. I have been visiting them regularly since the early 2000s. In that time span, a number of people have moved to the islands to live, work, and set up businesses. I have interviewed several of them. 

Miyakojima is a city of 555,538 people. It was formed in October 2005 through a merger of five neighboring cities, towns, and villages due in part to the declining population. One of the senior business leaders in the city told me that he and many others welcomed these new arrivals for the "fusion" they create — combining local aesthetics with outside trends.

Nevertheless, I was also disappointed to learn that progress has yet to be made in developing higher education facilities in the Miyako Island group. Having such institutions would give young people a reason to stay in their hometown. Then, perhaps they would also find employment there or set up their own businesses. 


Said another way, the failure to increase higher educational opportunities in Miyako is causing more and more young people to leave. Moreover, the lack of educational opportunities is likewise affecting Yonaguni and the Ishigaki Island (Yaeyama) group 

It is not an exaggeration to say that establishing these institutions is almost as important as the Self-Defense Force bases that have been constructed in recent years. 

Education in the Islands

There are three high schools in the Miyako group. That is down from five a mere fifteen years ago. Of each high school graduating class in this group, about 80 percent go onto some form of higher education. All of it is outside of Miyako. 

Some head to the main island of Okinawa. Meanwhile, others go on to mainland Japan. 

Another 20 percent of the graduating class seeks employment. Some enter the Self-Defense Force and Japan Coast Guard, both of which have a presence in Miyako.

In any case, just 5 percent stay in Miyako. Most who leave never return to live.

Ground Self-Defense Force camp is under construction in Ishigaki, Okinawa Prefecture. (August 2022, (©Kyodo)

Overcoming the Quiet Threat

There are varying views on this increasing phenomenon of leaving the island. Some residents are resigned to it saying, "It can't be helped." 

Others, however, take a more positive view. They consider it a rite of passage. One is the aforementioned senior business leader, a wise man well into his 80s but with the flexible thinking of a young person. He said that he prefers to see them leave the island and "develop immunities, become stronger mentally, physically, intellectually, emotionally, and then go do great things."

Still, it does leave a significant decrease in the talent pool on the islands. And this talent is increasingly necessary with the rush to build resorts and hotels in the island group. 

It also is a quiet security threat when the population is so few — compared to years past — and made up of primarily older residents. Indeed, the Miyako group has a higher proportion of elderly than Okinawa proper. 

Higher education opportunities would lead to greater local employment and increased entrepreneurship. It may not be the only solution to the problem of encouraging young people to remain (or inviting young people from around Japan and the world to study there). But it is a necessary first step. 


Security should not only be thought of in terms of hardware. The bases and equipment deployed are important. But the software of the human resources there is important as well. 


Author: Robert D Eldridge, PhD

Eldridge is the author of "The Origins of the Bilateral Okinawa Problem" (Routledge, 2001) and the former political advisor to the Marine Corps in Japan. Read his essays and analysis in English on JAPAN Forward.

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