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Coronavirus Surge For U.S. Military On Okinawa Adds To Soured Relations There

Pictured in 2019, Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki on Tuesday questioned U.S. measures to stop the coronavirus from spreading on the island.
Behrouz Mehri
AFP via Getty Images
Pictured in 2019, Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki on Tuesday questioned U.S. measures to stop the coronavirus from spreading on the island.

Relations between the more than 25,000 U.S. military forces on Okinawa and that Japanese island's 1.5 million residents have long been strained over pollution, crime and overcrowding associated with the 31 U.S. military basesthere. Now a new outbreak of COVID-19 cases among American service members stationed on Japan's southernmost territory is fraying things further.

As of Tuesday, 100 new cases of COVID-19 have been detected in the past week at five U.S. bases on Okinawa, accordingto Japan's independent Kyodo News agency. Beyond those bases, where only three cases had earlier been confirmed, Okinawa has had a relatively low impact from the disease, reporting 148 infections and seven deaths.

At a weekend news conference, Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki called the surge of coronavirus cases among U.S. military personnel "extremely regrettable," accordingto the Reuters news agency.

"I can't help but have strong doubts about the U.S. military's measures to prevent infections," Reuters quotes Tamaki telling reporters, while citing reports of American service members going off base for Independence Day beach parties and nightlife district visits around July 4.

"It is extremely regrettable that there have been a large number of infections among those connected with the U.S. military over a short period of time," The Asahi Shimbun quotes the governor as saying Saturday, "when the Okinawa prefectural government and the public were working together to prevent further infections."

On Tuesday - one day before a slated meeting with the Okinawa governor to discuss the new coronavirus outbreak — Japanese Defense Minister Taro Kono told reporters that problems with COVID-19 extend to all U.S. military bases in Japan, not just those on Okinawa.

"We have discovered a number of problems," the Associated Press quotesKono as saying, while noting that those unspecified problems were found after Japanese officials asked for information from the U.S. military. "We need to more strictly scrutinize the situation with the U.S. military in Japan."

Because a status of forces agreement excludes U.S. military personnel and their families from Japanese jurisdiction, American service members are not subject to a travel ban Japan has imposed on the U.S. and 129 other countries and territories during the pandemic.

On Sunday, in what the Japanese defense minister described as "an extremely grave incident," an American couple and their young daughter who landed at Tokyo International Airport at Haneda were tested for COVID-19 upon arriving en route to a U.S. Marines air base in Iwakuni. Kono said the family had falsely declared they would be traveling to the base by private car, when in fact they took a commercial flight there and were subsequently found to have tested positive for the virus.

Lt. Gen. Kevin B. Schneider, who commandsall U.S. forces in Japan, on Saturday extended through Aug. 13 a COVID-19 Public Health Emergency declaration for all U.S. military bases in Japan. That means all clubs, bars, pachinko parlors, as well as flea markets, concerts, restaurant dining, the use of mass transit and gyms off base will continue to be prohibited for American military personnel in Japan.

Two U.S. Marine Corps bases on Okinawa have been placed on lockdown since the latest outbreak. Together, U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma and Camp Hansen account for at least 62 of the known cases.

The Futenma air base, which is located in a densely populated urban area, has been at the center of ongoing controversy over the U.S. military's plans to relocate it to another part of the island. In a referendum last year, 70% of Okinawa voters rejected keeping the air base on the island.

Local officials complain that the U.S. military has not been sufficiently forthcoming about the details of who has been infected and where they have been during the recent surge in coronavirus cases.

"We have no way of knowing whether the large number of infections has made it difficult for the U.S. military to accurately grasp the details or if they have the details but are not disclosing them," an unnamed prefectural government official toldThe Asahi Shimbun. "We are also worried about whether the U.S. military hospital will be capable of dealing with a situation in which many patients develop serious symptoms."

American forces seized Okinawa 75 years ago in the last major battle of World War Two. The U.S. administered the island until 1972, when its control reverted to Japan. The island accounts for less than 1% of Japan's total land area, but 70% of the land occupied by the U.S. military in Japan is in Okinawa.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.
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