Tokyo’s concerns over a COVID-19 outbreak at U.S. military bases in the country have grown after Defense Minister Taro Kono revealed that three individuals linked to a base in Yamaguchi Prefecture who later tested positive for the virus had lied about their travel plans after entering the country.
The three, who media reports said were a U.S. couple in their 40s and their daughter, under 10, flew into Tokyo’s Haneda Airport from the United States on Sunday. After taking polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests at the airport, they told authorities that they would rent a car for their journey to U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, but instead flew commercially to Iwakuni Kintaikyo Airport on Monday before the test results became available — despite military guidelines prohibiting them from using public transportation.
“It’s an extremely disappointing situation,” Kono said. “We have requested the U.S. side dole out a strict punishment and prevent a recurrence of this.”
The Yamaguchi Prefectural Government said it was checking those who had close contact with the family during the flight and at the airports.
The revelation came ahead of a report Wednesday that authorities had confirmed 36 more cases of COVID-19 at a U.S. Marine base, Camp Hansen, in Okinawa Prefecture, bringing the total cases at American military facilities on the island prefecture to 136. The Iwakuni base also confirmed another COVID-19 case Wednesday, it said in a statement, though this was unrelated to the others.
U.S. military personnel in Japan are exempt from its travel ban on visitors from the United States, which had registered some 3.8 million COVID-19 cases and 138,000 deaths as of Wednesday, though they must undergo PCR tests if they fly into major international airports, including Haneda. Such visitors are also required to stay at airports or facilities designated by quarantine authorities after arrival until their test results are released.
Yamaguchi Gov. Tsugumasa Muraoka called the incident “very regrettable.”
“I want people to follow rules,” he was quoted as saying Tuesday.
Earlier that day, Kono drew attention to “several problems” with the U.S. military’s prevention measures after coronavirus infections were reported at five of its bases in Okinawa Prefecture.
“Several problems with the U.S. military’s preventive measures have been discovered,” Kono told a news conference, adding that the American side had vowed to tackle the issues thoroughly.
Pressed for specifics on the “problems,” Kono did not reveal details. However, reports of U.S. personnel leaving base for beach parties and visits to nightlife districts around U.S. Independence Day on July 4 have stoked concern among residents, with Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki alluding to this as having played a possible role in the outbreak.
Kono said he hoped to make more information public soon.
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