As COVID cases rise, US military forces face restrictions


TOKYO — Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said on Sunday that Japan and the United States had reached “basic agreement” on banning the U.S. military from leaving its base, amid growing concerns over a strong increase in coronavirus cases.

Kishida said US soldiers will remain on base “unless absolutely necessary,” which presumably means in an emergency or for other security reasons. Details of the deal are still being worked out, he told Fuji TV. The US-Japan comprehensive security alliance remains unchanged.

New daily cases of COVID-19 have recently emerged in what medical experts are calling “the sixth wave.” New cases topped 8,000 on Saturday, a four-month high. The spike has been blamed on the US military as increases in cases are most pronounced in areas close to bases. Japan asked the United States to cooperate in keeping its military personnel on the base last week.

A spokesperson for U.S. Forces Japan was not immediately available to comment on Kishida’s latest remarks. But Maj. Thomas R. Barger said COVID-19 trends were being closely watched in the ranks for “health protection and operational readiness” in Japan.

Okinawa, a southwestern island group home to most of the 55,000 U.S. troops in Japan, is among three prefectures where new restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of infections were rolled out on Sunday.

The measures, which last until the end of the month, force restaurants to close early, at 8 or 9 p.m., and some must stop serving alcohol.

Government-backed restrictions also came into effect in Yamaguchi prefecture, where the Iwakuni base is located, and nearby Hiroshima. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, which documents the US atomic bombing of Japan at the end of World War II, and Hiroshima Castle are both closed to visitors.

Other regions may order similar regulations if cases continue to rise. People have been warned to stay home and avoid travel. Until recently, bars, shrines and shopping districts were packed with end-of-year shoppers and New Year’s vacationers.

Japan has never experienced a lockdown, but it has seen periods of varying levels of restrictions, including school closures and event cancellations.

About 80% of the Japanese population received the second vaccine. The boosters have barely started, less than 1% receiving, despite repeated government promises to speed up their rollout. Japan has implemented strict border controls, prohibiting most inbound travel except for residents and returning citizens.

Japan has so far reported about 18,300 COVID-19 related deaths. In recent days, there have been only one or two deaths, and some days zero.


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