US military in Japan agrees to curbs as Covid-19 cases surge near bases

Mr Yoshimasa Hayashi called for stronger virus measures, including limits on excursions off base, to relieve anxiety among local people. PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO (BLOOMBERG, REUTERS) - Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi has urged the US to impose restrictions on troops stationed in Japan amid Covid-19 outbreaks thought to have stemmed from bases, which have strained ties between the allies.

In a phone conversation on Thursday (Jan 6) with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Mr Hayashi called for stronger virus measures, including limits on excursions off base, to relieve anxiety among local people, according to a statement issued by Japan's Foreign Ministry.

Mr Blinken responded that the health and safety of local people are extremely important and said he would convey the message to the Defence Department, the ministry said.

A separate statement from the State Department, however, mentioned only that the two "expressed their shared commitment to combating and recovering from the Covid-19 pandemic", without mentioning the infections that are part of a surge in cases following months at low levels.

US Forces Japan said in a statement that mitigation efforts would be stepped up for all military installations across the country, including requiring US military personnel to wear masks off base and stricter testing.

“The mitigation measures we have instituted... are intended to protect our force’s readiness, the well-being of our families, and the health of Japan’s citizens,” the force said

“We recognise we all have a part to play in keeping our communities safe.”

Pacifist Japan relies heavily on its only treaty ally, the United States, for national security, but local communities have long complained of crime, pollution and accidents associated with the military bases.

The spread of the virus adds a new headache for the alliance.

The Japanese government is planning to introduce restrictions aimed at controlling the virus in the prefectures of Okinawa, Yamaguchi and Hiroshima, public broadcaster NHK said.

Okinawa, where the first cases of the Omicron variant were linked to a US military base, expects about 900 cases on Thursday, Governor Denny Tamaki told reporters, up from about 50 a few days ago.

Yamaguchi, which also hosts a US Marine base, is seeing its worst figures since August.

The number of daily infections nationwide leapt to more than 2,000 on Wednesday, for the first time since late September, a figure dwarfed by the more than a million cases recorded in the US earlier in the week.

Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike was set to meet Prime Minister Fumio Kishida about the virus surge on Thursday.

Ms Koike had said late on Wednesday she had no plans at that point to ask the national government to introduce a quasi-emergency in the capital over the coronavirus.

The Japanese capital confirmed 390 cases on Wednesday, compared with 76 a week earlier.

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