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Editorial: Japan gov't lacks sense of crisis over US military bases' COVID-19 cases

The novel coronavirus is spreading at United States military bases in Japan's southernmost prefecture of Okinawa. Over 100 people have been infected, with most of them having been confirmed between last week and this week.

Seventy-one people at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in the city of Ginowan, and 58 at the Marine Corps' Camp Hansen in the town of Kin have COVID-19. It is said that parties were held on and around July 4, American Independence Day, in and outside of the bases.

The U.S. has the greatest number of COVID-19 cases and deaths of any nation in the world, and Japan currently does not permit persons from the U.S. to enter the country. However, the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement allows U.S. soldiers and others tied to the U.S. military to enter and exit Japan freely without being subjected to Japanese quarantine. We must not let the U.S. military in Japan become a loophole in our border control policy.

The Japanese and U.S. governments have agreed to mutually report and share information when a medical facility run by the U.S. military in Japan or a local health center confirms a case of novel coronavirus infection.

The U.S. military has informed the Okinawa Prefectural Government of the number of COVID-19 cases that it has confirmed on its side. However, information needed to prevent further spread of the virus, such as where the infected people live and where they've been in recent days, has not been sufficiently supplied to prefectural authorities.

This prevents the local governments from taking effective measures. It threatens the safety and lives of local residents who interact with people tied to the U.S. military on a daily basis.

The Japanese government has been slow to act as well. Defense Minister Taro Kono said on July 14 that "there are some problems" with the U.S. military's measures to prevent the viral infection from spreading, and revealed that he had requested that U.S. forces take more intensive steps. He also said that he would consider making more information available to local residents.

The policy of the U.S. Department of Defense is to not disclose the infection statuses of individual bases or units as a matter of operational secrecy. Based on this policy, the U.S. military based in Okinawa had requested that the Okinawa Prefectural Government not disclose the number of infections among U.S. military-related persons to the public.

However, when those connected to the U.S. military in South Korea are found to be infected with the novel coronavirus, the U.S. military announces how the infected people entered South Korea, and how their infections were identified. Japan should seek the same treatment.

Multiple COVID-19 cases have been confirmed at U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in Yamaguchi Prefecture, western Japan, as well. Local authorities in other areas hosting U.S. military bases are fearful that infections might spread where they are.

The Japanese government must not leave this issue for individual local governments to respond to on their own. It must make stronger demands to the U.S. government that it swiftly provide information and cooperate with local governments.

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