National | FOCUS

Virus outbreak at U.S. Okinawa bases highlights immigration 'loophole'

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff writer

Cascading revelations about new COVID-19 cases at U.S. military bases in Okinawa are igniting scrutiny of what is increasingly seen as a “sanctuary” immune from immigration oversight by Japanese authorities.

The last several days have witnessed a surge in coronavirus cases at bases in Okinawa, with Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in the city of Ginowan, logging 71 cases as of Tuesday evening, according to the prefecture. The Futenma outbreak, coupled with smaller clusters at elsewhere, including at Camp Hansen, has so far taken the tally of base-related cases in the prefecture to 136.

Okinawa’s efforts to ward off the virus are compromised by its hosting of the U.S. military — over which it has little control — illustrating challenges likely to resonate with many other nations that accommodate U.S. bases. The issue at the bases, which have long been a target of residents’ anger, is compounded by difficulties the prefecture has with accessing key information over the outbreaks.

The predicament is likely to continue — or possibly even worsen.

In a development that many worry potentially exacerbated the spread of the virus, off-base festivities broke out in city streets and at local beaches to celebrate U.S. Independence Day on July 4. Outcries over the revelry have been aggravated by reports that the U.S. Marine Corps is now contracting out a local Okinawa hotel off base — rather than use its own lodging facilities on base — to quarantine personnel flying in from America, the world’s worst coronavirus hot spot.

“It is extremely regrettable that at a time when residents in Okinawa make an all-out effort to prevent infections, a multitude of cases have occurred in a short span of time among U.S. military personnel,” Gov. Denny Tamaki told a hastily convened news conference Friday. “I cannot help but harbor a strong sense of distrust of steps taken by the U.S. military toward curbing infections.”

A spate of cases prodded U.S. Forces Japan to re-extend its nationwide health emergency over the coronavirus until Aug. 13. It had been due to expire on Tuesday. Lt. Gen. Stacy Clardy, commander of the III Marine Expeditionary Force and head of U.S. forces in Okinawa, reportedly told Tamaki by phone Saturday that Futenma and Camp Hansen are now under “lockdown.”

Although America is one of the countries subject to travel bans imposed by the central government amid the pandemic, its military personnel aren’t subject to the ban under the 1960 Status of Forces Agreement, which grants members of the U.S. armed forces special dispensation from “Japanese passport and visa laws and regulations.”

Unlike the U.S. Air Force's Kadena Air Base, marine bases including Futenma and Camp Hansen are reporting large virus outbreaks. | REUTERS
Unlike the U.S. Air Force’s Kadena Air Base, marine bases including Futenma and Camp Hansen are reporting large virus outbreaks. | REUTERS

Servicemen can therefore bypass virus testing conducted at major international airports such as Narita and Haneda and fly directly from the U.S. and bases across the globe to military bases in Japan. Infections have been confirmed not only at Okinawa bases, but also at those in other cities, including Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in Yamaguchi Prefecture.

Shigeru Handa, a veteran defense journalist who has extensively covered base issues in Japan, described the immunity as a “loophole” that could significantly undercut efforts by the central government to defend the country against the virus at the border control stage.

“Imagine a bucket with a huge hole at the bottom,” Handa said. “No matter how hard you try to scoop up infections, they keep constantly slipping out because of that hole.”

This is not to say, however, that the U.S. military hasn’t taken measures to prevent the spread of the virus from arriving personnel.

Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, for example, has been placing incoming personnel and their families from the U.S. under 14 days of what it calls restriction of movement (ROM) from the day of their arrival.

The Kadena Air Base serves as the de facto gateway for all U.S. personnel flying into Okinawa via military air. | REUTERS
The Kadena Air Base serves as the de facto gateway for all U.S. personnel flying into Okinawa via military air. | REUTERS

Kadena Air Base serves as the de facto gateway for all personnel flying into Okinawa via military air. Personnel complete 14 days of ROM at assigned locations, such as Kadena, the nearby Futenma base and Camp Foster, according to Lt. Col. Christy Stravolo, chief of public affairs for the 18th Wing. Even those who arrive on commercial aircraft conduct ROM at a military installation before going ahead with any domestic transportation, Stravolo added.

Starting Tuesday, members in ROM status will be required to have a PCR test performed on day 12 of their isolation, Stravolo told The Japan Times.

“All members within the residence are required to test negative for COVID-19 prior to being released from restriction of movement. In addition to this testing, Kadena Air Base conducts random surveillance testing on 1 percent of the force and 10 percent of base medical personnel every 14 days,” Stravolo said.

Members from the 18th Wing, the host wing for Kadena, and their families conduct their isolation on base, including at their assigned dormitory and contingency housing, Stravolo said. Should individuals test positive for COVID-19 while in ROM status, they will not be transferred to off-base medical facilities but remain quarantined in their residence. If hospitalization is deemed necessary, they will be relocated to the U.S. Naval Hospital Okinawa at Camp Foster, Stravolo said.

Such rigorous quarantine steps may be the reason for a relatively small cluster at Kadena Air Base, which as of Wednesday morning had only recorded five cases. That stands in sharp contrast with the much bigger outbreak rearing its ugly head at marine bases including Futenma and Camp Hansen, with criticism growing that anti-infection measures there are implemented behind closed doors and at the mercy of the military. Handa, for one, likened the opacity to a “black box.”

Among those most distrustful are Japanese employees who work at the bases.

Mamoru Henna, a representative of the Okinawa branch of All Japan Garrison Forces Labor Union, said many of the union’s members have questioned how rigorously quarantine has been implemented.

“We know that the 14-day ROM has been in place since around February, but workers of our union are skeptical as to whether they are really isolated or how thoroughly it’s been enforced,” Henna said. “Much of the process is invisible to us.”

Marines and sailors are screened upon arriving from Guam at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa Prefecture on June 2. | U.S. Marine Corps
Marines and sailors are screened upon arriving from Guam at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa Prefecture on June 2. | U.S. Marine Corps

That disconnect between the U.S. military and Japanese workers, who are hired by an Okinawa bureau of the Defense Ministry, was brought sharply into focus on July 7 when an outbreak befell the Futenma air base.

At the time, an “emergency alert” sounded, prompting gates to be closed, with Japanese workers kept in the dark about what was happening, according to the union’s letter of protest obtained by The Japan Times.

“Why was the alert issued? Has there been an oversight with anti-infection measures? Were Japanese employees ever involved in the transfer of those infected or exposed to them? We are in a spiral of trepidation,” Eizo Yonaha, head of the Okinawa union, wrote in the letter submitted to the Defense Ministry’s local bureau, calling on the employer to have a firmer grasp of the details.

The union is far from alone in fretting over the scarcity of information made available by the U.S. military.

In late March, the U.S. Defense Department ordered all installations worldwide to stop disclosing new coronavirus cases among their personnel from what it said was the standpoint of protecting its operational security.

This policy shift has enfeebled one crucial avenue through which Okinawa Prefecture’s military base affairs division was previously kept abreast of details on base-related infections, an official with the division said. This route involves information from the military being relayed to local bureaus of the Foreign and Defense ministries before reaching the prefecture.

Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki says he harbors a strong sense of distrust of steps taken by the U.S. military toward curbing infections. | KYODO
Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki says he harbors a strong sense of distrust of steps taken by the U.S. military toward curbing infections. | KYODO

But the announcement by the Pentagon, the official said, has made the number of infections — effectively the only key detail ever provided by the military via this route — no longer accessible.

This has left the prefecture relying almost solely on another avenue of information that involves its health division being directly briefed by the U.S. military. This arrangement is based on a bilateral memorandum in 2013 that stipulated the U.S. military and Japanese health authorities are duty-bound to notify each other of the outbreak of an infectious disease should it occur, and to “take necessary measures” accordingly.

The pact has so far kept the health division informed of the number of base-linked cases and — to a lesser extent — details on what off-base places infected individuals had recently visited, an official said.

“I think our division and U.S. bases have maintained a fairly friendly relationship when it comes to sharing information on infectious diseases,” he said. “But it sometimes does happen that information we want to know about, such as contact history of those infected, is not provided as sufficiently as we desire,” he said.

Adding to the furor is the recent revelation that the U.S. Marine Corps has rented out a hotel in Chatan, on the western coast of Okinawa, to house military personnel transferred from abroad for 14 days of quarantine.

The hotel is reported to be Doubletree by Hilton, a 160-room, beachside resort adjacent to a popular theme park. When contacted by The Japan Times, Kazuko Ogawa, general manager of the hotel, would not comment on the report, saying she cannot answer anything related to the privacy of customers.

Lt. Col. Neil J. Owens, however, informed Chatan officials Tuesday that the hotel will stop accepting incoming service members by the end of this week, and instead start functioning as temporary housing for outgoing members from Okinawa bases next week, according to town official Mutsuhiko Kinjo.

Still, the original arrangement caught the town off guard, Kinjo said.

“Our basic understanding is that this kind of quarantine should be conducted on base,” he said.

Marines and sailors are screened upon arriving from Guam at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa Prefecture on June 2. | U.S. MARINE CORPS
Marines and sailors are screened upon arriving from Guam at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa Prefecture on June 2. | U.S. MARINE CORPS

“There is of course the safety of residents we need to be worried about. We want the U.S. military to take thorough steps to ensure that its members will remain inside, and that no possible risk will escape the hotel,” Kinjo said, adding the town has lodged a formal protest with local bureaus of the Foreign and Defense ministries.

But as if that wasn’t enough of a nightmare for Okinawa residents, a slew of partygoers were seen celebrating on July 4, spurring concerns that a new, much bigger cluster of cases may be on the horizon.

The U.S. Marine Corps didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment on the contracting of the Chatan hotel and whether it condoned off-base festivities on July 4. Stravolo, meanwhile, said Kadena Air Base has maintained restrictions on mass gatherings, while also mandating social distancing and the use of masks, adding that any violators will be “subject to administrative action through their chain of command.”

Tamaki is calling on residents to consult hotlines or medical professionals if they took part in these gatherings.

“It’s been brought to our attention that U.S. military personnel and alike were enjoying trips to nighttime entertainment streets off base and holding beachside parties on July 4 and in the days before and after that,” Tamaki said in a statement released Saturday.

Your news needs your support

Since the early stages of the COVID-19 crisis, The Japan Times has been providing free access to crucial news on the impact of the novel coronavirus as well as practical information about how to cope with the pandemic. Please consider subscribing today so we can continue offering you up-to-date, in-depth news about Japan.

Coronavirus banner