US and Japanese troops during a joint military exercise. Photo: Facebook

TOKYO – As the number of daily Covid-19 infections across Japan soars from less than 100 per day at the end of last year to more than 30,000 per day at present, increasing anger is being aimed at … the US military.

While Japan and the United States may be linked at the hip when it comes to big-picture defense issues, lax measures taken at US military bases in Japan are being blamed for contributing to Japan’s sixth Covid wave. 

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has bragged that Japan has “the most stringent border controls in the G7” – but those controls have not managed to keep Omicron out of the country. And the US military presence in the country – approximately 55,000 strong – has not helped. 

US troops have acted as a “Trojan Tank” for the virus due to their command’s failure to observe the same quarantine guidelines enforced in the rest of Japan – or even the protocols that US troops agreed to in nearby South Korea. 

Given the heavy reliance Japan places upon its alliance with the United States, the situation is politically ticklish for Kishida. Making it doubly so, the epicenter of the outbreak is Okinawa.

The southern island – the scene of a murderous and destructive battle between Imperial Japanese and US forces at the end of World War II – is where a lopsided large number of the US troops in Japan are based.

Anti-US base sentiment constantly simmers on the island, where a movement protests against issues ranging from the environmental degradation caused by bases to the noise pollution caused by US aircraft to violent crimes committed by resident GIs. 

One of the most prominent members of that movement is the island’s governor Denny Tamaki. Tamaki has been warning Tokyo against the lax Covid protocols on the bases since December – to no avail.

A policeman blocks people protesting against the presence of US bases in front of the gate of the US Marine Corps’ Camp Schwab in Nago on the southern island of Okinawa prefecture on June 17, 2016. Photo: AFP / Toru Yamanaka

Omicron storms Okinawa

The ongoing wave of the novel coronavirus, notably the highly transmissible Omicron variant, has hit a record high with the number of daily infections Japan-wide reaching 32,197 on January 18 – exceeding the 30,000 mark for the first time.

The previous record had been 25,992 daily caseloads, set on August 20, 2021. 

From Friday, January 21, the Japanese government will implement quasi-emergency measures, designed to restrict social and business activities, across Tokyo and much of the country.

These measures are a long way from a total lockdown. But for a Covid-weary population, and for related businesses, the measures will prove onerous. 

In quasi-emergency situations, prefectural governors may order restaurants and bars to shorten business hours and stop serving alcohol in specific areas. Noncompliant businesses can be fined up to ¥200,000 (US$1,750). Residents in these areas are also asked not to travel across prefectural borders.

On November 29, Kishida, who advocates “crisis management that always assumes the worst,” announced a general suspension of new arrivals from all over the world as part of his efforts to strengthen measures.

He boasted: “I am prepared to bear the criticism that ‘Kishida is too cautious” – though it also sparked allegations of xenophobia.

The next day, despite the border controls, the first Omicron case was reported in Japan. By January 13, it was reported in all prefectures nationwide.

Given the tight – some say harsh – frontier controls emplaced to keep the disease out, fingers are being pointed at those who slip under Japan’s border controls. Those people are its key allies. 

The Lax Yankees

The first major outbreak of Omicron took place in Okinawa – the island which houses 70% of the US military bases in Japan. 

Infection numbers started soaring in the prefecture after a large cluster was reported in the US Marine Corps’ Camp Hansen in mid-December. The next loci of infection were in areas around military bases.

Consequently, the first round of quasi-emergency measures to prevent the spread of the disease were put in place in Okinawa, as well as Yamaguchi and Hiroshima prefectures.

In Yamaguchi Prefecture, 325 residents contracted the virus over the two-week period to January 5. They included 230 who live in Iwakuni – where the US Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni is located.

Iwakuni Mayor Yoshihiko Fukuda told a news conference in early January that a Japanese employee at the base who contracted the Omicron variant and a restaurant employee shared the same type of virus genome. The results have been confirmed by the National Institute of Disease Studies. 

“It is likely that the Omicron variant inside the base has leaked to the community,” Fukuda said.

The major cluster of infections confirmed at the Iwakuni base in Yamaguchi-Prefecture seems unrelated to Hiroshima. However, the base is only about 50 minutes by train from the city of Hiroshima, and Hiroshima is the closest thing to a major metropolitan entertainment area from the base. 

Okinawa prefectural officials on January 5 confirmed that 623 residents had contracted the virus. On the same day, the local government announced their findings that Japanese employees at Camp Hansen had been infected with the Omicron variant. Other residents are believed to have caught the strain through community transmissions.

“A major cause of the spread of the Omicron variant is that it has seeped through the US military,” Governor Denny Tamaki said at a press conference. 

US troops at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa. American troops have been blamed for the spread of the Omicron variant. Photo: WikiCommons

Uncomfortable SOFA

As is the case with its alliances in other parts of the world, the US military enjoys a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) in Japan, under which its personnel are exempt from domestic laws.

As those laws and regulations include entry, exit and quarantine measures, the Japanese and US governments agreed last summer that US forces in Japan would take measures “consistent” with Japan’s border control measures. 

However, it has emerged that the US military canceled PCR inspections on departures from the US mainland to Japan from September to December 25 last year.

This was done without notifying the Japanese side. It appears that Tokyo did not grasp the actual situation until it was too late.

Dr Yasuharu Tokuda, an expert in clinical epidemiology who lives in Okinawa, wrote a scathing online essay, noting that last November, all across Japan infections had drastically diminished. He was particularly angered by the failure of the US to institute PCR tests at a time when Covid was running rampant across the US.

He wrote: “On New Year’s Day 2022, 235 US military personnel were infected in a single day. Despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of people were infected daily in the US, at that time, it was announced that the US did not conduct PCR testing or strict quarantine of soldiers moving from the US to Okinawa before and after their arrival.

“US bases in South Korea and Australia continued to conduct testing and quarantine, but it is clear that Japan and Okinawa were being neglected.”

His conclusion was harsh. “Clearly, it was the US military bases that triggered the rapid spread of the disease,” he wrote.

Kishida is not immune from responsibility. He ignored a mid-December request by Tamaki to ban US military personnel from entering or leaving their bases on Okinawa. 

There is a particularly contentious background to the Okinawan outbreak. Many Okinawans believe that their island bears too heavy a burden with US bases and that the metropole should accommodate more. Tamaki is, himself, of this belief. 

It was not only Okinawa’s fears that were realized. The Omicron strain expanded rapidly in the prefecture and to other parts of Japan. Even the large number of cases in distant Osaka is partly being blamed on the fact that the airline route from Osaka to Okinawa has the greatest number of flights per day, and many Osakans traveled to sunny Okinawa over the New Year Holidays. 

The situation is proving a political embarrassment for the Japan-US alliance.

The US military finally announced measures to prevent the spread of the disease – such as a curfew – on January 9. 

The following week Kishida told a press conference: “We will discuss health and hygiene issues related to the stationing of US forces in Japan at the Japan-US Joint Commission under the Status of Forces Agreement.”

Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi is not staying quiet on the issue. Photo: WikiCommons 

Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi also held a teleconference with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and requested that measures be strengthened, including restrictions on US military personnel from leaving their homes. 

Hayashi’s suggestion is the same measure that Tamaki – an outsider in Tokyo’s corridors of power – had requested in December. 

And Tamaki is not keeping quiet. He and other prefectural leaders are calling for revisions to the SOFA. Tamaki has argued repeatedly that a clause pertaining to quarantine should be added. Members of the main opposition party in the Diet have also requested such an amendment.

But revisions to SOFA are both highly sensitive and bureaucratically irksome. Despite what Kishida said about SOFA discussions during his press conference, Asia Times has learned that the Japanese bureaucracy is, in fact, not considering it. 

“Revising the Status of Forces Agreement is a non-starter,” a source in Tokyo’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs told Asia Times. “Once we start making requests, the US is going to come back with twice as many – it’s a vicious circle. We just hope that next time, the US will treat Japan with the same consideration they do South Korea, and test their soldiers before letting them come here.”