Photo/Illutration Construction work is ongoing to build a Self-Defense Forces camp in Ishigaki in Okinawa Prefecture on March 10. (Kazuyoshi Sako)

NAHA--The Okinawa prefectural government is preparing to run a simulation of what evacuating the population to safety would be like in the event of an armed attack by foreign countries.

The Self-Defense Forces and five municipalities in the Sakishima islands in the prefecture will take part in the table-top exercise, organized by the prefectural government, on March 17.

The exercise will simulate a situation where some 20,000 residents of remote islands must evacuate from their homes per day on private companies’ aircraft or ships.

It comes amid tensions over Taiwan and elsewhere in the region raising fears about the prospect of a military confrontation.

“It would be ideal if diplomatic efforts could avert emergencies involving Taiwan or others,” said Mitsuru Fukuda, professor of crisis management at Nihon University. “However, it is a step forward that the government and local authorities have thought in detail about the protection of civilians at the 'frontline' of security."

The exercise will examine how related organizations can liaise to coordinate an evacuation that meets the set timeline.

A law on the protection of civilians sets out what the government and local authorities should do if “an armed attack is anticipated.”

The exercise will be conducted on the assumption that the government designates the entire prefecture as an “area in need of evacuation.”

Then it will stimulate an attack where around 110,000 residents in five municipalities in the Sakishima islands, including Ishigaki and Yonaguni town, and around 10,000 tourists evacuate to seven prefectures in the Kyushu region.

It will also simulate situations where around 1.3 million residents of the main island of Okinawa evacuate to indoor locations.

The Cabinet Secretariat, the Japan Coast Guard, and the Fire and Disaster Management Agency will also participate in the exercise.

Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine and North Korea’s ballistic missile tests, the Okinawa prefectural government began holding meetings with relevant organizations in May last year to exchange opinions and consider evacuation timelines in a crisis.

The prefectural government estimates that in the event of an emergency, it would be possible to transport around 17,500 people a day by plane and about 3,000 people by ship each day from Ishigaki and Miyakojima.

All residents in these areas would be able to evacuate in six days, the prefectural government concluded.

But there is still a lot to work out.

“The utmost challenge is how to recognize (when to anticipate an armed attack) before an attack by a foreign country starts. We need to come up with ways to do so,” Fukuda said. “The second most difficult challenge is how many companies we could secure to provide ships or aircraft in the event of emergencies. We need to think about logistics in detail. Thirdly, we need to explain to residents and form a consensus. It’s also important to support their lives in evacuation locations.”

The prefecture has been in discussions with stakeholders on how to ensure there would be temporary flights and personnel to operate the transport vehicles, along with how to maximize the capacity on those vehicles, such as by finding ways to get more people aboard ships.

Municipalities would transport their residents to airports or ports, but fewer than half have detailed plans in place for what transport means or routes they would use.

An official in charge of the exercise at the prefectural government said that the drill will not be conducted assuming a specific emergency scenario and “will be a basic one based on limited assumptions.”

The official also said the central government, prefectural government and municipal governments need to work together in their preparations so an actual evacuation will not go awry.