Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi has urged the US to impose restrictions on the troops stationed in Japan amid a spread of COVID-19 cases among the US military personnel.
The request to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday came as virus cases surged on the southern island of Okinawa, which hosts most of the US forces in Japan and is now seeing a rise in local community infections.
During the top diplomats’ phone conversation, Hayashi requested that the United States take thorough measures to prevent the virus from spreading further, Japan’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Blinken responded that the health and safety of local people were extremely important and he would convey the message to the Defense Department, the statement added.
Infections in Okinawa have been rising since last month, when a cluster of cases was detected at one of the US military bases there. On Wednesday, the prefecture reported 623 new cases, expected to rise sharply to around 980. This was the first time the daily figure had topped 600 since August.
Discoveries of coronavirus clusters and Omicron cases among service members have rankled relations between the US and Japanese authorities and residents, who number just under 1.5 million.
The first Omicron case among civilians has been traced to a local man who is employed at a US base. Okinawa confirmed 47 new omicron cases on January 4.
Infections among US force members are not included in Okinawa’s daily case reports, although cases among local Japanese staff at US bases are. A daily count of that level would be a record high for Okinawa, whose government decided earlier in the day to request that the central government place the island prefecture under a quasi-state of emergency.
It would be the first such declaration of that state since September 30, when all states of emergency and quasi-emergency that had been in effect for a good part of 2021 were lifted.
Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki has criticized the US military for failing to adhere to Japan’s strict measures for overseas arrivals, and on December 21, he urged the US military personnel to be confined to their bases in order to avert the spread of infections to the prefecture’s civilian population.
Hayashi said then that the US military was not adhering with Japan’s policy of testing incoming travelers for the virus on arrival and requiring them to quarantine for two weeks.
Since the complaint, US soldiers are now being tested within 24 hours of arrival, according to Japan’s government.
The same issue was raised last year as well and the non-observance of health protocols by American soldiers led Japan to declare a state of emergency in the Okinawa region.
The island’s residents have for decades called for the removal of at least some portions of the huge US military facility amid an escalating resentment across Okinawa against repeated accidents and crimes committed by American troops and personnel stationed at the base.
Although Okinawa accounts for less than only one percent of Japan’s total land area, it hosts more 70% of the nearly 47,000 American military service members stationed in Japan.