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Why some 55,000 U.S. military personnel in Japan will be confined to their bases


Some 55,000 U.S. military personnel will be confined to their bases in Japan for the next two weeks, except for what are deemed essential activities. The restrictions are intended to beat back a surge in COVID cases in Japan and, as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul, also to defuse tensions in an alliance at the center of the U.S.'s Asia policy.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: The restrictions were announced Sunday in a joint press release by the Japanese government and U.S. Forces Japan - or USFJ. Last week, Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi demanded that the U.S. impose tougher restrictions on U.S. bases. Denny Tamaki, the governor of Okinawa prefecture, where new COVID cases jumped to record highs, told reporters last week he believes that U.S. military bases spread the coronavirus to local communities.


DENNY TAMAKI: (Non-English language spoken).

KUHN: "I have to say that the rapid increase in the number of positive cases in the U.S. military," he said, "is a sign of inadequate infection control measures and management systems. And I am infuriated." USFJ's website put the number of positive cases as of Friday at over 2,100. On Sunday, three prefectures, including Okinawa, which hosts U.S. bases, went under states of semi-emergency. Tsugumasa Muraoka, governor of Yamaguchi prefecture, which is home to a U.S. Marine Corps air base, blamed the problem on lax U.S. virus control measures.

TSUGUMASA MURAOKA: (Through interpreter) Since early September, personnel coming from the U.S. to bases in Japan were not tested for COVID before departure. What should have been done was not done.

KUHN: In an email, Major Thomas Barger, a spokesperson for USFJ, said that the U.S. CDC, the Pentagon and Indo-Pacific Command stopped requiring pre-departure tests in September but resumed them on December 26. He notes that over 98% of active duty USFJ personnel are now vaccinated. Daniel Sneider, a Stanford University expert on Japan's foreign policy, notes that the COVID issue comes as Tokyo and Washington are tightening their alliance to deal with shared security challenges, particularly China. Sneider says the U.S. would be making a mistake if it didn't take Japan's concerns about COVID on U.S. bases seriously.

DANIEL SNEIDER: You know, if you start alarming the Japanese population so that they perceive the presence of American troops as a sort of super spreader event for Japan as a whole, that has a real long-term effect just in terms of undermining what are, for the most part, pretty good relations between the U.S. military and Japan and the surrounding communities.

KUHN: Sneider notes that relations are more difficult on the island of Okinawa. It has less than 1% of Japan's land but hosts more than 70% of U.S. military bases in the country. New COVID cases on Saturday in Okinawa jumped 30 times over the previous Saturday. Okinawan anthropologist Hideki Yoshikawa says that when he sees maskless U.S. military personnel on the street, it makes him wonder...

HIDEKI YOSHIKAWA: What kind of prevention measures that the U.S. military as a whole was taking. You have this spread of the coronavirus and then military people going out of their bases and going to their local communities and not wearing masks.

KUHN: Some critics say the root of the problem is the 1960s status of forces agreement between Tokyo and Washington exempting U.S. troops from Japanese border controls. Foreign Minister Hayashi said Friday that Tokyo has no plans to change that agreement.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVE 78 AND AVER'S "PEARLS BEFORE SWINE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.

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