Japan asks US forces to stay on base as COVID-19 cases jump

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Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi has asked that the U.S. military in Japan stay inside its bases to prevent the further spread of COVID-19

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

American forces have come under fire after a spike in coronavirus cases in areas where they are based in large numbers, including Okinawa and Iwakuni, both in southern Japan.

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

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

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

A daily record of 981 people tested positive for COVID-19 in Okinawa on Thursday. In December, there were zero new cases on some days.

“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.

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Yamaguchi prefecture also sent a request to the national government to strengthen anti-virus measures after it confirmed a record 181 daily COVID cases. Yamaguchi prefectural officials suspect 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 so far been reluctant to order restrictive measures.

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

COVID-19 cases among U.S. Forces in Japan now total 1,784, about a third of them on Okinawa, according to USFJ. Iwakuni has reported a total of 529 cases.

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

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Yuri Kageyama is on Twitter

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