US Navy stop at isolated Japanese island drew Okinawa protests
Stars and Stripes September 13, 2023
CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — A U.S. Navy ship for the first time in over a decade stopped at a southwestern Japanese island close to Taiwan, over objections from Okinawa prefecture, to demonstrate U.S. commitment to security in the Pacific.
The USS Pioneer, an Avenger-class mine countermeasures ship, and its crew of about 60 arrived Thursday at Ishigaki Island and stayed one night, a spokeswoman from Okinawa prefecture’s Military Base Affairs Division said by phone Wednesday.
The prefecture protested to Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the U.S. Consulate General Naha and the U.S. military when it learned in August of the planned visit, the spokeswoman said. Some government officials in Japan are required to speak to the media on condition of anonymity.
“It is extremely regrettable” that the ship stopped at Ishigaki after being asked not to, the spokeswoman said. The prefecture asked that the Navy only use the port in an emergency, she said.
The Pioneer’s crew took part in community relations events and met with local municipal and business leaders, according to a news release Friday from Mine Countermeasures Squadron 7.
“It’s been a long time since a U.S. Navy ship was in port in Ishigaki and we are thrilled that USS Pioneer got the opportunity to come visit and engage with the local community,” Lt. Cmdr. Chase Harding, the ship’s commander, said in the release.
Ishigaki, 160 miles east of Taiwan in the Yaeyama islands, is a popular tourist destination. Though it features a city and an airport, the island is covered in thick, subtropical vegetation.
Camp Ishigaki, a Japan Ground Self-Defense Force base, opened March 16 with anti-ship and surface-to-air missiles, Japanese public broadcaster NHK reported that month. The island is one of three where Japan plans to install an upgraded version of its Type-12 surface-to-ship missile by 2026 to counter perceived threats from China and North Korea.
The Pioneer stopped at Ishigaki’s commercial port during routine training in the region, according to Squadron 7. It was the Navy’s first visit to the island since 2009, and the first ever by the mine ship.
Sailors and consulate staff from Okinawa on Friday also cleaned a local beach, according to a news release Sunday from Expeditionary Strike Group 7. They also met with members of the Japan coast guard and Yaeyama police.
The Pioneer, based at Sasebo Naval Base on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu, is one of 14 wood-hulled Avenger-class ships. They are capable of finding, classifying and destroying moored and bottom mines using sonar and video systems, cable cutters and a remotely operated vehicle.