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Japanese defense minister draws attention to ‘problems’ with US military response to Okinawa base outbreaks

Marines with Company E, 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines, 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) run to board a MV-22B Osprey during aviation integration training at Futenma Air Station, Okinawa, Japan, June 29, 2020. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Dominic Clay)

Defense Minister Taro Kono on Tuesday drew attention to “several problems” with the U.S. military’s prevention measures after coronavirus infections at five of its bases in Okinawa Prefecture surged to a total of 100 cases.

“Several problems with the U.S. military’s preventive measures have been discovered,” Kono told a news conference, adding that the American side had vowed to tackle the issues thoroughly.

Pressed for specifics on the “problems,” Kono did not reveal details. However, reports of U.S. personnel leaving base for beach parties and visits to nightlife districts around Independence Day on July 4 have stoked concern among residents, with even Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki alluding to this as having played a possible role in the outbreak.

Kono said he hoped to make more information public soon.

The 100 COVID-19 infections have so far been reported at five facilities in Okinawa Prefecture over the week through Tuesday evening. The prefectural government and U.S. Marines have said that two sites have seen apparent cluster infections, with 71 cases confirmed at U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma and 22 at Camp Hansen, another Marine base. Five other cases were reported at Kadena Air Base, and one each at Camp McTureous and Camp Kinser.

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The U.S. military has put both Futenma and Camp Hansen under lockdown.

Kono said Tokyo and Washington were continuing to share information about the outbreak. He said officials from the defense and foreign ministries, as well as from the Okinawa government, had inspected a private hotel in the town of Chatan that is being used by the U.S. military to quarantine personnel and family members coming from outside the prefecture or abroad for two weeks. The U.S. military reportedly began renting the resort hotel this month.

Okinawa hosts the bulk of U.S. military forces in the country. While Tokyo regularly touts the importance of Japan’s security alliance with the United States, many Okinawans associate the bases with a range of problems, including crime and accidents.

Over the weekend, Tamaki said it was “extremely regrettable” that such a large number of cases had emerged in such a short period, adding that Okinawans had been “shocked” by the news.

“I can’t help but have strong doubts about the U.S. military’s measures to prevent infections,” he said.

Tamaki said he has asked U.S. forces to halt the arrival of troops rotating into the country and to boost anti-infection measures.

A U.S. spokesman said that while it was unclear where the infections had originated, an investigation — including into reports of large gatherings — was ongoing. The Marine Corps, meanwhile, said in a statement Tuesday that it was prohibiting off-base activity for all installations across Okinawa, except essential needs such as medical appointments approved by a commanding officer.

Late Monday, U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni also for the first time confirmed that several people working at the base in Yamaguchi Prefecture had been infected with the virus.

Media reports said three people — a U.S. couple in their 40s and their daughter, who is under 10 — had arrived at Haneda Airport from the United States on Sunday.

After taking virus tests at the airport, they flew to Iwakuni Kintaikyo Airport the following day before their test results became available. The Yamaguchi Prefectural Government said it plans to check those who had close contact with the family during the flight and at the airports.

Travelers from the U.S. and elsewhere are required to stay at airports or facilities designated by quarantine authorities after their arrivals in Japan until their coronavirus test results are available.

Yamaguchi Gov. Tsugumasa Muraoka called the incident “very regrettable.”

“I want people to follow rules,” he said Tuesday.

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© 2020 the Japan Times