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What Would Japan Do If China Takes Taiwan, Lands Tanks and Marines on Okinawa?

The war games simulation in Tokyo used scenarios “so timely as to be frightening,” and well within the range of possibilities.



China National Security Strategy
China televises the firing of ballistic missiles into "training" areas around Taiwan and inside Japan's southwestern EEZ. August 4, 2022. Photo from Weibo.

The prime minister of Japan addressed his Cabinet with words not spoken in nearly 80 years: “We are at war.”

This grave pronouncement was part of a simulation held over the weekend of August 6 and 7 at the Hotel Grand Hill Ichigaya in downtown Tokyo, just steps away from the Ministry of Defense building. The “prime minister” was House of Representatives politician and former Minister of Defense Itsunori Onodera. His “Cabinet” comprised other key politicians and officials.

There was no war. It was all a drill.

But it felt very real. During one of the sessions, images of Chinese forces launching missiles at Taiwan played across a giant screen set up in one of the hotel’s ballrooms. This was not a drill at all. This was the day’s news. 

As some of Japan’s leading statesmen and women gathered to prepare for a Taiwan contingency — which many in the Liberal Democratic Party now openly state will be a Japan contingency as well — the Chinese Communist Party was throwing a live-fire tantrum over United States Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. 

The missiles were very real. And they were really being launched in anger. Some of them landed inside Japan’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), a reckless and potentially catastrophic provocation. 

China was running its own simulation parallel with the one in Tokyo. Only, the Chinese simulation wasn’t in a hotel. It was on the sea, in the air, and on the land — a naked act of aggression against a peaceful and democratic neighbor. 

Taiwan Emergency Simulation Team (Photo credit: Jason Morgan)

Former Prime Minister Abe Presided in Spirit

The Tokyo simulation event started with a moment of silent prayer for former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose portrait had been placed respectfully on a high table on the dais. Abe was felled by an assassin’s bullet almost exactly one month earlier. He presided in spirit over an event that, in many ways, he made possible.

In April of 2022 I attended a keynote address given by Abe at an event held to reflect on lessons learned from the first Taiwan Emergency Simulation conducted in 2021. 

Abe spoke of the need to raise Japan’s defense spending to 2% of GDP. He spoke of ending “strategic ambiguity” and getting ready to step up should war come to the western Pacific. That April day, as I looked around the room filled with attentive officials and members of the press, I couldn’t help but think that such a speech would have been ignored by Japan’s heavily-biased legacy media just two or three years before.

But Abe had changed the way the Japanese people think. He spent his career reminding us here in Japan, and everyone around the world, that Japan is a good country and is worth fighting for.

A Chinese Navy frigate that sailed in the continental zone of the Senkaku Islands in July 2022 (provided by the Ministry of Defense.)

Reality Lessons from Provocative Neighbors 

When Abe first began speaking of toughening Japan’s defense posture, he was called a fascist by the anti-Japan regulars in Tokyo press clubs and the faculty lounges of the United States. Abe was leading Japan into militarism, Japan “experts” assured us. Tokyo was preparing for another “rampage” in Asia, we heard. 

Only a shrill fringe bleats that refrain now. The People’s Republic of China is a certified genocidal dictatorship. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is less a country than a prison camp. The Republic of Korea alternates between sane governments and anti-Japan carnival barkers. Russia is busy decimating the civilian population of Ukraine.

With neighbors like this, the only wonder is that it took so long for Abe’s message to get across. 

Hong Kong fell, and suddenly history got real again. Then the United States left Afghanistan to its hellish fate in the summer of 2021. Taiwan is obviously next in Beijing’s crosshairs.

These sudden doses of reality have made many former peaceniks in Japan wake up and ask themselves what Tokyo is going to do if China takes Taipei and lands People’s Liberation Army tanks and marines on Okinawa.

Impact of Chinese Escalation 

Over the two-day Taiwan emergency simulation exercise, members of the organizing think tank, Japan Forum for Strategic Studies (where this writer is a researcher), presented “Prime Minister” Onodera and his “Cabinet” with three scenarios, each with several sub-scenarios to which they had to respond. 

No one on the simulation team had seen the scenarios before. They were given just a few minutes to read the briefing packet provided at the start of each session. After that, they had to work through each situation in real time, just like in a real emergency. 

Chinese warships and “fishing vessels,” along with other Chinese forces, were portrayed as swarming Japan’s remote southern islands, moving toward Taiwan, or feinting while Chinese media and government authorities blanketed the airwaves with fake news.

The scenarios were highly detailed and very realistic. This was certainly due in large part to retired General Kiyofumi Iwata, who headed the simulation command center off-stage. Along with five other retired high-ranking Self-Defense Force officers, General Iwata was in charge of making sure the scenarios challenged the participants to work through problems which Japan might face very soon.

“Prime Minister” Itsunori Onodera and “National Security Secretariat Secretary General” Nobukatsu Kanehara confer during an urgent session with American “President” Kevin Maher and American “Secretary of State / Secretary of Defense” Akihisa Nagashima. (Photo by Jason Morgan)

Frighteningly Timely Options

Most of the scenarios were set five or so years in the future. But everyone with whom I spoke said they hoped none of the scenarios would ever come to pass.

“I hope these things never happen,” General Iwata told me during a short intermission between sessions. 

At the same time, everyone recognized that all the scenarios were well within the range of possibilities.

“Unification with Taiwan by means of force is a realistic option for China,” noted Haruko Arimura, a leading Liberal Democratic Party representative in the House of Councillors who played the role of Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry during the simulation. 

Rui Matsukawa, another House of Councillors member (who had the difficult task of playing the role of the Minister for Foreign Affairs on the first day and the Minister of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism the second day), noted during her opening remarks that the simulation exercise was “so timely as to be frightening.”

“Chinese escalation will create new realities,” Matsukawa said. “Things won’t go back to the way they were before.”

“Defense Minister” Taku Otsuka and his Self-Defense Forces advisors confer during the Taiwan Emergency Simulation. (Photo by Jason Morgan)

Preparing for the Unthinkable

The simulation team, under the leadership of “Prime Minister” Onodera and “National Security Secretariat Secretary” General Nobukatsu Kanehara, kept its cool during even the most high-pressure scenarios. 

In one situation, the “prime minister” and his “Cabinet” were asked to consider the unthinkable — the use of nuclear weapons by the People’s Republic of China. Onodera repeated one of his major themes from the event: “Protect the Japanese people.”

“Nuclear weapons shouldn’t exist,” “Prime Minister” Onodera said. “But the fact is that they do exist. And as the only nation ever to experience an atomic bombing, we must never, ever allow Japan to be attacked with such weapons ever again.”

All were agreed that Japan must be defended from nuclear attack. But not all were agreed on how to do that. 

House of Representatives member Taku Otsuka, who played the role of Minister of Defense, expressed misgivings over Onodera’s decision to allow Ohio-class submarines, carrying missiles possibly tipped with nuclear warheads, into Japanese waters.

The three non-nuclear principles of not possessing, making, or allowing nuclear weapons in Japan continue to enjoy broad public support. The real Prime Minister Fumio Kishida was recently in New York City, where he spoke at the United Nations to the Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Kishida, a native of Hiroshima, was the first Japanese prime minister to attend this conference.


As at the simulation in Tokyo, the subject of nuclear weapons remains a highly contentious one. Judging from the exchange at the Taiwan emergency simulation, clear decision-making and policy revision on the nuclear question would seem to be a high priority.

Many Hurdles Remain

There was plenty of resolve and courage during the simulation exercise. But there were also moments of confusion. Many hurdles remain to be cleared if Japan is really to be ready for what seems increasingly likely — a major Chinese move against Taiwan. 

Maps during the Simulation. (Photo by Jason Morgan)

During the various scenarios Taiwan and Japan suffered cyberattacks and other onslaughts against networks and power grids. Undersea cables were cut, isolating Taiwan and the outlying Japanese islands. Blackouts in major cities or across whole regions led to panic among the general public.

Fake news abounded. The Chinese side, and malevolent actors embedded in Taiwan and Japan, worked to spread disinformation in an attempt to undermine command-and-control efforts by the Taiwanese and Japanese authorities.

In all, it was apparent that backup forms of communications were needed in the event of an emergency. During the simulations, Japan fell back on the use of repurposed satellites, and satellites borrowed from the United States, to patch together communication networks after Chinese assaults. But whether this fix would work in practice is a big question mark. 

“Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry” Haruko Arimura studies incoming information on the big screen during the Taiwan Emergency Simulation. (Photo by Jason Morgan)

Protecting the People

Much discussion centered on how to evacuate Japanese citizens from Taiwan and China in the event of an emergency. 

Former Maritime Self-Defense Forces vice-admiral Kojiro Watanabe, who played the role of Maritime Self-Defense Forces Chief-of-Staff, advised that there was not enough room on Maritime Self-Defense Forces ships to ferry thousands, or perhaps tens of thousands, of refugees (including possibly Taiwanese refugees) to safety on the Japanese main islands.

Kevin Maher, former director of the Japan Affairs Office at the State Department and currently affiliated with the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies, played the American president during the event. Maher pointed out during the study session after the simulation that there is no law in Japan allowing the government to commandeer vessels in the event of an emergency. 

“Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry” Haruko Arimura expressed the view of the Keidanren business federation that war with China should be avoided at all costs. 

Without China or Taiwan to keep supply chains moving, Arimura pointed out, Japanese companies’ access to semiconductors, rare-earth metals, and other essential components would falter. Japanese businesses would suffer disastrous results. Arimura recommended diversifying supply chains and “soft-decoupling” from China to prepare for this eventuality. 

Commemorative photo of the G7 Summit on June 26, 2022 in Elmau, Southern Germany (Kyodo).

International Coalitions

Takashi Yamashita, a House of Representatives member who played the role of Minister of Finance, remarked during many of the sessions that it would be necessary to obtain broad support across Europe and North America for imposing financial and economic sanctions on the People’s Republic of China. Freezing Chinese assets and stopping SWIFT transactions to and from China would mean staying in close contact with counterparts overseas.

And the Senkaku Islands remain unmanned. A simulated Chinese landing on the Senkakus reported in the Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece Renmin Ribao caught the “Cabinet” flatfooted. A detachment would have to be sent to confirm the Chinese news reports, it was decided.

In this writer’s view, however, it would be better to beat the Chinese to the Senkakus and set up a permanent garrison now.

The World that Abe Changed

In the course of the simulation event, I stopped to chat on the sidelines with Takashi Arimoto, publisher of Seiron magazine. Arimoto mentioned an interview he had conducted recently with an American academic who compared the late Abe to Ronald Reagan. 

Indeed, Reagan changed the world’s conversation. He reminded us that freedom is possible if we’re willing to fight for it. Abe did the same, perhaps on an even larger scale, and with even higher stakes.

Toward the end of the simulation event, US “President” Maher remarked that, just a few years ago, an event envisioning a Taiwan emergency would have been dismissed as crazy. Now, however, it’s attended by top-name politicians and officials.


The 2021 simulation was even covered in a special broadcast by NHK.

People are waking up. And not a moment too soon. The simulation suddenly seems very real.

Abe saw the Taiwan emergency coming from way out. He warned us for years, until his voice was silenced in July.

The only question that remains now is not if, but when. Reiko Nagano, director and secretary-general of the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies, told me that the Taiwan Emergency Simulation was a way to get Japan ready for when that day comes.


Author: Jason Morgan

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