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Editorial: Govt’s slow response to COVID at U.S. bases causes anxiety

The number of cases of COVID-19 infections is rapidly increasing in Japan. The rise is particularly prominent in regions that host U.S. military bases, including Okinawa, Yamaguchi, and Hiroshima Prefectures, where the government will declare a quasi-state of emergency.


Both the Japanese and U.S. governments must share a sense of urgency to do their utmost to prevent the virus from spreading further, while definitively closing the “loophole,” which the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) has created at Japan’s ports of entry.


Yesterday, Okinawa Prefecture registered a record 981 new cases of COVID, excluding cases among U.S. military members.


The Okinawa prefectural government believes that the current surge has been caused by cases that originated at the U.S. bases and penetrated into Okinawa cities. A joint study the prefecture conducted with the National Institute of Infectious Diseases has revealed that multiple patients suspected of community transmission were carrying the Omicron variant that matches the genome strain found in base workers.


Even though the U.S. bases have threatened the health and safety of Japanese citizens, the central government’s response has been slow and lukewarm.


It was Dec. 17 when Okinawa made public a large cluster incident at a U.S. base and disclosed that Japanese workers on the base were infected with the Omicron variant. Since then, it has come to light that the U.S. soldiers had been exempt from COVID testing requirements before and after their arrival in Japan and were free to move around inside the bases during the period when restrictions were in place.


These U.S. military members are not subject to Japan’s domestic laws under the SOFA. Wasn’t that exactly why the two governments made an agreement in July 2020, in the face of the COVID-19 surge, that the U.S. forces would take measures that are “consistent with” Japan’s virus countermeasures at ports of entry? This turned out to be just wishful thinking. The Japanese government has not even made efforts to ascertain the actual situation of the U.S. forces in the country. The distrust felt by municipalities and residents close to the U.S. bases is not at all unique to Okinawa.


On Jan. 6, during a teleconference with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Foreign Minster Hayashi Yoshimasa requested the U.S. side to enforce COVID countermeasures, including restrictions on the military members who intend to go off the bases. It was what Okinawa Governor Tamaki Denny requested on Dec. 21. The delay of half a month has had grave and significant consequences.


The quasi-emergency measures will also take effect in Yamaguchi and Hiroshima Prefectures, on whose borders sits the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni. About 60% of the recent COVID-19 cases in Yamaguchi Prefecture were reported in Iwakuni City, and the city government believes it probable that Omicron originating on the base has spread to the city, just as in Okinawa.


The SOFA, which is the basis of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, is deeply linked to the virus spread. Prime Minister Kishida Fumio should come to the Diet today and hold a press conference to explain how and why such outbreaks came about, as well as his thoughts about what should have been done to prevent them. He should also explain, in his own words, what he plans to do going forward.


When imposing quasi-emergency measures, former Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide left the explanation to the minister in charge. A bad precedent should not be followed. As the head of the government, Prime Minister Kishida should squarely address the anxiety and misgivings felt by the Japanese people.

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