Photo/Illutration A Self-Defense Force member teaches a bus driver, right, how to properly cover passenger seats and disinfect the vehicle. (Yoshitaka Ito)

Japan's Self-Defense Forces, which had no coronavirus infections while assisting aboard a quarantined cruise ship, are being stretched thin by local officials and businesses looking to learn how to safely deal with the disease.

The Defense Ministry and SDF have increasingly raised concerns that the activities are interfering with training and operations designed to more directly defend the nation against enemies.

“We cannot ignore training and other preparations,” said Gen. Goro Yuasa, chief of staff of the Ground SDF.

Since April, there have been multiple instances of Chinese military aircraft approaching Japanese airspace. North Korea has also conducted at least five missile tests since March.

The SDF must also prepare for the next major natural disaster, which could occur at any time.

That has led to consideration about how the SDF can more quickly pass the baton in dealing with disasters and other emergencies to the private sector.

The SDF, with its long expertise in handling natural disasters, was first called on to assist the hundreds of passengers on the Diamond Princess docked at Yokohama Port who had been infected with the coronavirus.

SDF members were asked to help test the passengers for the virus and to transport some for self-quarantining at hotels.

None of the 4,900 or so SDF members who participated in the mission contracted the virus.

Later, SDF members were dispatched to commercial airports to help test arriving passengers and to transport them for self-quarantining.

From April, various local governments that were instructing those with no or minor symptoms of COVID-19 to remain in hotels called on the SDF to assist hotel staff in accepting such patients.

In past natural disasters, SDF members were dispatched without a set time period. But in dealing with the coronavirus, their activities have been limited to a week.

“In areas that can be handled by the private sector, we want the SDF to provide education so that such tasks can be passed on to that sector,” Defense Minister Taro Kono said.

Having SDF members return to their normal routines will reduce interference in training and other activities.

The need to quickly shift duties the SDF have assumed to the private sector also arises because there is no telling how long it will take to bring the coronavirus under control.

That has led to the decision to deploy SDF members for short periods so they can pass on their knowledge about how to protect against virus infections to the private sector or local governments.

One example is the transporting of arriving passengers at Narita Airport to hotels or other accommodations.

Since entry restrictions were implemented, SDF members have used buses to take about 4,000 passengers to hotels.

But such work will now be conducted by employees of Auto Will, a charter tour bus company based in Mobara, Chiba Prefecture.

SDF members instructed bus drivers on preparing the buses before transporting the incoming passengers as well as other measures to keep in mind to prevent infections.

The coronavirus outbreak had led to cancellations of tour bus use from January so Auto Will had little business in March and April.

About 10 drivers who agreed to transport passengers from Narita will take over the work previously carried out by SDF members.

Such moves may also affect future dispatches of the SDF to deal with major natural disasters.

The extended periods of deploying SDF members have also led to concerns among high-ranking SDF officers that they were pushing out private-sector firms from certain activities.

“There were instances when the SDF continued to do work that could have been handled by private companies,” one officer said.

SDF officials are now considering compiling rules that would allow for smoother transfer of various activities to the private sector in handling the aftermath of natural disasters.