January 7, 2022 at 16:50 JST
Coronavirus infections are skyrocketing across Japan, and the situation is especially serious in areas where U.S. military bases are located.
The government has decided to apply the “man-en boshi” pre-emergency measures to the three prefectures of Okinawa, Yamaguchi and Hiroshima.
The Japanese and U.S. governments must act with a shared sense of emergency and make all-out efforts to stop the rapid spread of the virus. Tokyo and Washington should also work together to plug the hole in Japan’s border control system that has surfaced in the bilateral Status of Forces Agreement amid the new wave of infections.
On Jan. 6, a record total of 981 newly confirmed cases of COVID-19 excluding those among U.S. service members were reported in Okinawa Prefecture.
The prefectural government believes the latest wave of infections has been caused by the Omicron coronavirus variant that has spread from U.S. bases.
The local administration’s joint study of unknown-source infections among citizens--suspected cases of community transmission--with the National Institute of Infectious Diseases has discovered the same genomic sequence of the Omicron variant in some patients as the one that was found in infected workers at U.S. bases.
U.S. military bases have become a source of threat to citizens’ health and safety. The national government’s response to the dire situation, however, has been frustratingly slow and tepid.
On Dec. 17, the Okinawa prefectural government announced that there had been a massive cluster of infections in a U.S. base, mostly among members of a rotational unit of newly arrived Marines, and the first case of infection with the Omicron variant among local workers at the base.
It was later revealed that U.S. service members are not subjected to COVID-19 tests before leaving the United States for Japan or immediately after arriving at a base. They are also allowed to move around within bases without any restrictions even during the mandatory 14-day Restriction of Movement (ROM).
The U.S. forces in Japan are not subject to Japanese law thanks to the U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement. The principle is also applied to the Japanese quarantine law.
This is the reason the two governments worked out an agreement in July 2020 to ensure that the U.S. forces in Japan take precautions that are “consistent with” Japan’s border control measures to combat the pandemic.
But it seems the agreement has not been enforced to make a difference. The Japanese government has not even tried to monitor how it has been implemented by the U.S. side.
It is no wonder that local governments and residents of cities and towns that host U.S. bases, not just Okinawa, are doubtful about the U.S. military’s commitment to the agreement.
Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi held talks with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken over the phone on Jan. 6 and asked him to strengthen measures at U.S. military bases to prevent the novel coronavirus from spreading, including restricting outings of people tied to the U.S. military.
The same request was already made by Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki on Dec. 21. The delay of half a month has turned out to be very costly.
U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni is located in Iwakuni, Yamaguchi Prefecture, near the border with Hiroshima Prefecture. Both prefectures will also reinstate the pre-emergency measures.
City officials of Iwakuni, which accounts for some 60 percent of all the new COVID-19 cases in the prefecture in recent days, think it likely that the Omicron variant has spread from the U.S. base. The situations in these prefectures are almost identical to that in Okinawa.
One important factor behind the latest wave of infections is the Status of Forces Agreement, which is at the core of the bilateral security alliance.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida should attend the Jan. 7 Diet session to speak about what is happening in his own words. He should explain how the current situation has come to pass, factors that have driven the development, lessons that should be gleaned and measures he intends to take in the coming weeks.
He should also hold a news conference to address these issues.
Kishida’s predecessor, Yoshihide Suga, left the task of explaining about his decisions to take the pre-emergency measures to his minister in charge. But Kishida does not have to follow the bad example.
We urge Kishida, the chief executive of the government, to confront the anxiety and doubt among citizens.
--The Asahi Shimbun, Jan. 7
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