Japanese FM requests curfew for U.S. bases amid rampant COVID-19 spread

Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi on Thursday requested U.S. bases in Japan to impose a curfew amid a rampant spread of COVID-19 cases among U.S. military personnel.

According to the foreign ministry, Hayashi’s request was made by telephone to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, with Hayashi reportedly telling Blinken that further measures need to be taken by the U.S. side to prevent the virus from spreading at U.S. military facilities in Japan and further into the community.

The Japanese side has been irked by the U.S. lax approach to administering its military personnel with COVID-19 tests before and after arriving in Japan, leading to a spike in cases and cluster infections at multiple U.S. bases here.

At the Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, a U.S. Marine Corps air station located in Yamaguchi Prefecture, south of Hiroshima, 182 personnel were confirmed to be infected on Wednesday, official figures showed.

The mayor of Iwakuni said the cluster outbreak at the base was “fueling the rapid spread of (the) Omicron (variant of the virus) in his city.”

“We’ve heard that the genome of the coronavirus from the base workers and those who tested positive at restaurants in the city is the same. It’s highly likely that the Omicron variant has spread from the base throughout the city,” Iwakuni Mayor Yoshihiko Fukuda was quoted as saying.

Japan’s southernmost prefecture of Okinawa, where the vast majority of U.S. bases are located in Japan, meanwhile, confirmed 623 new cases on Wednesday, more than doubling its daily tally compared to the previous day.

This marked the first time the U.S. base-heavy prefecture’s daily COVID-19 tally surpassed 600 in more than four months, official figures showed.

Last month, what has been described as a “major cluster of infections” broke out at the U.S. Marine Corps’ Camp Hansen in Okinawa, as was widely reported at the time, sparking initial concerns about the virus’ potential rapid spread from the base into mainstream Japanese society.

Local officials are now mulling whether to request the central government to declare a quasi state of emergency allowing Okinawa to introduce more stringent antiviral policies.

Other U.S. bases in Japan are also seeing significant COVID-19 cluster outbreaks and have likely been affected by new U.S. military personnel arriving in Japan not being required to undergo COVID-19 testing until five or more days after entering Japan, according to the U.S forces and as quoted by Japan’s public broadcaster NHK.

“The U.S. forces then revealed it did not require new personnel to be tested until at least five days after arriving in Japan,” NHK said.

Some 114 base-linked personnel have also tested positive for the virus recently, with Yokota Air Base in Tokyo seeing 57 personnel newly-infected, Camp Fuji in Shizuoka Prefecture reporting 41 new cases, while 16 new infections have been detected at Sasebo Navy base in Nagasaki Prefecture, according to the latest official figures.