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Japan asks U.S. troops to stay on their bases as COVID-19 cases surge

Sign for U.S. Marine Corps' Camp Hansen on Japanese island of Okinawa
A vehicle leaves the U.S. Marine Corps’ Camp Hansen on the Japanese island of Okinawa on Wednesday.
(Kyodo News)

Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi on Thursday asked that U.S. troops in Japan stay on their bases to prevent the further spread of the coronavirus.

Hayashi said he spoke on the phone with U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and was promised utmost efforts to ensure people’s health. It was not immediately clear if a base curfew would be issued.

Maj. Thomas R. Barger, a U.S. Forces Japan spokesman, said that he could not comment on the request but that a team was carefully monitoring cases and trends.

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Hayashi’s request came as the U.S. military is promising more stringent measures to curb the coronavirus’ spread. New measures require all personnel members, even those fully vaccinated, to wear masks on base until they receive a third negative coronavirus test, and reiterate an order for everyone to wear masks when off base, Barger said.

U.S. forces have drawn criticism after a spike in coronavirus cases in areas where they are based in large numbers, including Okinawa and Iwakuni, both in southern Japan.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said he has decided to tighten coronavirus restrictions in Okinawa; Yamaguchi prefecture, where Iwakuni is located; and Hiroshima.

Two women whose relatives died from COVID-19 at home are questioning the Japanese government’s policy of having some infected people recuperate in their own homes.

“Quick action is needed given the rapid spread of the Omicron variant,” he said.

New government measures focus on reducing the hours that alcohol can be served in eateries and bars and preparing the healthcare system to respond to surging cases. The measures will become official Friday after Kishida meets with experts and a report is made to parliament. Kishida also stressed that he strongly supported Hayashi’s request to the U.S. military.

Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki sent a request to Japan’s national government earlier in the day for permission to strengthen the prefecture’s anti-coronavirus measures.

A record 981 people tested positive for the coronavirus in Okinawa on Thursday. In December, there were no new cases on some days.

California will extend its statewide mask mandate for indoor public spaces for another month as an unprecedented wave of coronavirus infections continues to wash over the state.

“If we all work together, we hope cases will come down,” Tamaki told reporters.

Japan has never had a lockdown, but measures have periodically been taken to restrict people’s activities, such as requesting stores and restaurants to close early or serve fewer people. Such measures were lifted in September.

Tamaki has blamed U.S. soldiers for what he called “the alarming rise” of cases on Okinawa, which has been hit harder than the rest of Japan. He promised financial aid for businesses that abide by the restrictions.

Yamaguchi prefecture also sent a request to the national government to strengthen anti-coronavirus measures after it confirmed a record 181 daily cases. Prefectural officials suspect that the illness spread from U.S. soldiers and Japanese military personnel who work on Iwakuni.

Cases are gradually rising throughout Japan, including in Tokyo, which reported 641 new cases Thursday, up from 390 the previous day. Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike has been reluctant to order restrictive measures.

Japan beefed up border controls late last year, preventing travel from abroad except for returning residents and citizens. U.S. soldiers are basically free to enter and move about Japan under a bilateral security agreement. The U.S. is Japan’s most important ally.

Coronavirus cases among American service members in Japan now total 1,784, about a third of them on Okinawa, according to U.S. Forces Japan. Iwakuni has reported a total of 529 cases.

“The mitigation measures we have instituted throughout USFJ are intended to protect our force’s readiness, the well-being of our families, and the health of Japan’s citizens. We recognize we all have a part to play in keeping our communities safe,” U.S. Forces Japan said in a statement.

This week, Japan has been reporting more than 2,000 new cases daily, which shot up to 4,221 on Thursday, with cases tripling in many areas compared with the previous week. About 80% of the population has had two vaccine doses, and boosters are just getting started. Japan has had 18,300 coronavirus-related deaths.


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