world news Coronavirus Outbreak at U.S. Bases in Japan Roils an Uneasy Relationship


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TOKYO — An outbreak of coronavirus cases on United States military bases in Okinawa, Japan, has alarmed the island’s local population, which at times have been at odds with the Americans stationed there, and which have otherwise been successful in limiting Covid-19.

The U.S. Marine Corps, which has about 20,000 troops stationed on the island, reported 94 confirmed cases to the prefectural government and said it had instituted strict measures in all 33 installations in the region.

Denny Tamaki, the governor of Okinawa, said he was shocked by the number of infections and said it was “extremely regrettable” that so many cases had emerged among American troops and affiliated personnel in less than a week. Excluding the American cases, Okinawa has recorded just 148 infections since February.

Mr. Tamaki added that he had “strong doubts” about the prevention measures reported by the United States.

Japan, which has been relatively successful in containing the virus, has also experienced a recent surge of new cases concentrated in Tokyo, where a state of emergency was lifted at the end of May. Tokyo reported two consecutive days of record daily infections last week, with a large number of cases among people in their 20s and 30s who worked in or had visited venues in Tokyo’s nightlife districts.

The United States military in South Korea also announced on Monday that 11 troops had tested positive upon arrival from the United States. The American military has struggled with outbreaks among its troops, with a massive cluster of infections in March on the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt.

The Japanese military, by contrast, has reported just 14 cases among its defense forces, all of whom are thought to have contracted the virus in their communities rather than while deployed.

The cases in Okinawa are a new strain on relations between the military and the local government, where the presence of American bases, dating to the end of World War II, has been an ongoing source of friction. Citizens have long complained of noise, crime and aircraft accidents, and have repeatedly questioned why nearly half of the 55,000 American troops in Japan — which include personnel from all of the military branches — are stationed on Okinawa.

The Japanese central government considers the bases essential to the country’s security, and many citizens and businesses on Okinawa welcome the troops as customers and neighbors.

When news of infections first started emerging from the bases, both the governor and the Okinawa prefectural assembly demanded more information from the Marine Corps about the number of cases, which troubled Okinawan officials and residents who feared they may have unknowingly come into contact with infected troops.

“When anything like this happens, when the military doesn’t provide essential information of how many people are infected or where they are from or where they have been outside of the base, the Okinawan people are really scared and frustrated and disappointed,” said Manabu Sato, professor of political science at Okinawa International University, which overlooks the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.

“I’m scared,” said Tomonari Kiyuna, a worker at a noodle shop in Chatan, a neighborhood on Okinawa frequented by American soldiers. “We’re very careful, wearing masks, washing hands, and sanitizing,” Mr. Kiyuna said. “I want them to disclose the information. They are Americans but they are staying in Okinawa, Japan. Okinawans or the Japanese people have the right to know” about infections stemming from the bases.

Yoshihide Suga, chief cabinet secretary to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, said in a news conference that the government had “received the necessary information from the U.S.’s side, such as numbers of infected personnel and facilities affected.”

Governor Tamaki said he was concerned that the soldiers had spread infections during celebrations on July 4. “There is information that the U.S. Forces personnel went out to the nightlife districts and had beach parties outside of the bases on July 4,” Mr. Tamaki said in a statement on Saturday. He requested that the military stop transferring new troops from the United States, where case numbers are surging.

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