Japanese Residents Concerned About COVID-19 At Okinawa U.S. Military Base

Aug 16, 2020
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Coronavirus cases among U.S. military personnel on the Japanese island of Okinawa are causing friction with residents. This adds to historical grievances dating back to World War II and decades of other tensions. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Enter or exit a U.S. military base on Okinawa, and you may bump into Hiroji Yamashiro. The veteran activist is a fixture at anti-base protests. And now he's up in arms about COVID cases on the bases.

HIROJI YAMASHIRO: (Speaking Japanese).

KUHN: "U.S. forces enter through military airports without quarantines or checks," he says. "They drink and eat in bars and restaurants and spread infection. When they're criticized or asked to disclose information, they say it's a military secret."

What he says is partially correct. Incoming troops are quarantined not by Japan, but by the U.S. military. There have been few verifiable reports of U.S. personnel infecting Okinawans, although many roots of infections on the island are untraceable. Some of the U.S. bases on Okinawa have been locked down some of the time. U.S. military policy is not to release the number of cases for individual facilities, but U.S. forces started doing it last month at the request of Japanese authorities.

The U.S. military has reported 337 COVID cases on Okinawa, compared to more than 1,600 infections among locals. Last month, Governor Denny Tamaki expressed his concern after talking to the head of U.S. forces in Japan.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DENNY TAMAKI: (Speaking Japanese).

KUHN: "Okinawans are shocked by what we were told," Tamaki said. "We now have strong doubts that the U.S. military has taken adequate disease prevention measures."

Tamaki imposed a state of emergency on Okinawa this month as COVID case numbers jump nationwide. He also requested that the U.S. stop rotating personnel onto Okinawa. Lieutenant General Kevin Schneider, commander of U.S. forces in Japan, responded at a press conference this month.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

KEVIN SCHNEIDER: We have done everything that he has asked us to do. I don't think we are going to be able to satisfy his request to not rotate forces into Okinawa. That puts other operational missions at risk.

KUHN: Takashi Abe is a reporter with the Okinawa Times. He says that at the root of the problem is the status of forces agreement, or SOFA, which determines the legal status of U.S. military personnel in Japan. He says that the Japanese government interprets the agreement so liberally it effectively gives the U.S. military a blank check.

TAKASHI ABE: (Speaking Japanese).

KUHN: "They've created an atmosphere in which the U.S. forces are dominant," he says. "And Japan can't complain about them. It's as if SOFA is above Japan's supreme law, the constitution."

Abe also notes that U.S. forces in South Korea are stricter. Starting this month, service members will be required to test negative for the coronavirus before coming to Korea. Most Japanese, meanwhile, support the U.S. military presence. But it's a sensitive topic for Okinawans. In World War II, about a third of Okinawa's population died in a savage battle for control of the island. Residents have long complained about noise and crime associated with the bases. Now they say the bases pose a health threat as well.

Hideki Yoshikawa is in Okinawan anthropologist. He says communication between the U.S. military and Okinawan officials and residents has been consistently poor.

HIDEKI YOSHIKAWA: Coronavirus case is scary as a local person, local Okinawan, because there's no real trust with each other. And this distrust has been developed over the years.

KUHN: In another small victory for residents, the U.S. military stopped quarantining soldiers in a hotel it had rented off base, following a public outcry.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.