Japanese officials "shocked" by COVID outbreak at U.S. military bases

Tokyo — Officials in Okinawa said Monday that 95 U.S. service members at bases on the Japanese island have tested positive for the new coronavirus, raising long-standing tension between the local population and the American military. It's the biggest number of cases the U.S. military has seen in Asia since the COVID-19 pandemic started, and officials say U.S. virus containment policy isn't helping.

More than half of the roughly 50,000 U.S. troops in Japan are based in Okinawa. Three U.S. bases in Okinawa have confirmed infections: U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, Camp Hansen and Camp Kinser.

Local reports say Fourth of July parties held both on and off the bases — attended by hundreds if not thousands of personnel and employees - are at the root of the new outbreak.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey aircrafts are seen at the U.S. Marine Corps' Futenma Air Station in Ginowan on Japan's southernmost island of Okinawa
U.S. Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey aircraft are seen at the U.S. Marine Corps' Futenma Air Station in Ginowan, on Japan's southernmost island of Okinawa, March 24, 2018. ISSEI KATO/REUTERS

A lockdown is now in effect and efforts are underway to track down people who joined the celebrations for testing, and to trace any Japanese citizens who were in close contact with those people and may also be infected.

Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki expressed anger over the weekend, saying he was "shocked" by the size of the outbreak and had "concern that a second wave has hit."

He also cast doubt on whether the U.S. was doing enough to stop the spread of the deadly disease on the island.

"I can't help but feel serious doubts about U.S. measures against infections," he told reporters.

Personnel movements have been restricted and service members and their families aren't allowed to eat in restaurants in town or patronize non-essential businesses.

Governor Tamaki, the son of an American father and Okinawan mother, has also demanded the U.S. military increase disease prevention measures to maximum levels, stop sending personnel from the U.S. mainland to Okinawa, and be more transparent with local officials about what measures are being taken. 

Okinawa prefecture officials say the U.S. hasn't revealed details about the people already infected. 

This surge in coronavirus cases in Okinawa is only making tension worse between the U.S. military and the people of the island — a history marred by previous assault, rape and murder cases that have fuelled anti-U.S. sentiment on the island.

Beyond Japan, U-S Forces Korea confirmed Monday that there were 11 new cases among American personnel based in South Korea — all of them imported from the United States. 

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