Abstract Coral reefs are tropic to subtropic, coastal ecosystems comprising very diverse organisms. Late Quaternary reef deposits are fossil archives of environmental, tectonic and eustatic variations that can be used to reconstruct the paleoclimatic and paleoceanographic history of the tropic surface oceans. Reefs located at the latitudinal limits of coral-reef ecosystems (i.e. those at coral-reef fronts) are particularly sensitive to environmental changes – especially those associated with glacial–interglacial changes in climate and sealevel. We propose a land and ocean scientific drilling campaign in the Ryukyu Islands (the Ryukyus) in the northwestern Pacific Ocean to investigate the dynamic response of the corals and coral-reef ecosystems in this region to Late Quaternary climate and sealevel change. Such a drilling campaign, which we call the COREF (coral-reef front) Project, will allow the following three major questions to be evaluated: (i) What are the nature, magnitude and driving mechanisms of coral-reef front migration in the Ryukyus? (ii) What is the ecosystem response of coral reefs in the Ryukyus to Quaternary climate changes? (iii) What is the role of coral reefs in the global carbon cycle? Subsidiary objectives include (i) the timing of coral-reef initiation in the Ryukyus and its causes; (ii) the position of the Kuroshio current during glacial periods and its effects on coral-reef formation; and (iii) early carbonate diagenetic responses as a function of compounded variations in climate, eustacy and depositional mineralogies (subtropic aragonitic to warm-temperate calcitic). The geographic, climatic and oceanographic settings of the Ryukyu Islands provide an ideal natural laboratory to address each of these research questions.