Kishida says U.S. troops in Japan to limit nonessential trips due to COVID-19


Japan and the U.S. have agreed that U.S. forces stationed in Japan won’t leave their bases except for essential reasons in an effort to stem the spread of COVID-19 cases, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Sunday.

His comments came as areas near U.S. bases saw some of the biggest increases in infections on a per capita basis, prompting the government to introduce restrictions for the first time in months in some localities. Prefectural governors have blamed the problem at least in part on U.S. forces.

“We are extremely concerned,” Kishida told NHK, adding that the issue had been raised at talks between the foreign and defense ministers of the two countries last week. “The result of discussions is that unnecessary outings will soon be prohibited. We’ve reached a broad agreement on that and are working on the details.”

Japan had managed until recently to avoid the kind of surge in COVID-19 cases seen in many Western nations. Infections in Japan topped 8,400 on Saturday, the highest figure since September. While low compared with some other nations, case counts have climbed more than tenfold since the start of the year, increasing concerns that a bigger wave is underway.

A quasi-emergency began Sunday in the prefectures of Okinawa, Yamaguchi and Hiroshima, and is set to continue until the end of the month. It will allow local governments to place restrictions on businesses.

Under the quasi-state of emergency, the three prefectures will request dining establishments in areas subject to the restrictions to shorten business hours and limit group dining to up to four people.

Yamaguchi and Hiroshima prefectures are also asking establishments to stop serving alcohol, while Okinawa will allow restaurants and bars certified as taking sufficient anti-virus measures to serve alcohol until 8 p.m.

Yamaguchi Gov. Tsugumasa Muraoka told reporters Saturday his government may have to consider tougher measures if the situation continues to worsen in the prefecture.

Okinawa, which is home to the bulk of U.S. troops in Japan, saw a record 1,759 cases on Saturday. Yamaguchi saw 154 cases, about half of them in the city of Iwakuni, which hosts a U.S. Marine base.

Hampered by the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement, the government’s border controls against the coronavirus have not applied to U.S. military personnel, officials say.

Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki speaks to reporters at the prefectural government office on Friday. | KYODO
Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki speaks to reporters at the prefectural government office on Friday. | KYODO

The government has not publicly traced the spread of infections to the U.S. forces in Japan. However, given that the three prefectures dominate the top three spots in terms of the number of infections per 100,000 people in Japan, U.S. bases are believed to have been a source of transmission.

In mid-December, a spate of COVID-19 cases occurred at the U.S. Marine Corps’ Camp Hansen in Okinawa, mainly among troops who had recently arrived from the United States. A Japanese worker at the base also caught the virus.

A cluster of infections was also confirmed at the Iwakuni base in Yamaguchi. The base is about 50 minutes by train from the city of Hiroshima.

Many people have also been infected at the Yokota base in Tokyo and at the Yokosuka base in Kanagawa Prefecture.

The Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement, which governs the U.S. military in Japan, stipulates that U.S. service members, civilian military workers and their dependents entering or leaving Japan are exempted from Japanese immigration laws and regulations.

This has allowed U.S. military personnel to bypas quarantine measures. Instead, the United States is responsible for quarantine checks for troops and their families who arrive at U.S. bases in Japan aboard military planes and ships.

The U.S. military had explained that it would take border controls consistent with those of Japan, but it later came to light that since September last year, troops had not received coronavirus tests before departure from the United States.

Naha Airport is deserted on Saturday amid a surge in COVID-19 cases in the prefecture. | KYODO
Naha Airport is deserted on Saturday amid a surge in COVID-19 cases in the prefecture. | KYODO

Such holes in Japan’s strict border controls appear to have quickened the inflows of the highly transmissible omicron variant to Japan.

Due in part to uncertainty about how much the U.S. forces in Japan will implement curbs on outings by service members, there are calls for a revision to the bilateral Status of Forces Agreement.

Appearing on a television program on Friday, Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki said that a provision on quarantine measures should be added to the agreement. Some opposition party lawmakers are making a similar request.

But the central government has been consistently reluctant to revise the agreement. A Foreign Ministry source described a revision to the agreement as “opening Pandora’s box,” as the accord covers many other issues related to the stationing of U.S. troops in Japan.

“If we propose an amendment to the agreement, we will face many requests from the United States as well,” the source said.

At a news conference on Friday, Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi said that Japan has no plans to revise the agreement.

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