Fussa, Tokyo – Maintenance technicians with face masks on carry heavy equipment as they toil over an aircraft under the scorching heat. At a gym, servicemen run on socially distanced treadmills. Children in classrooms are seated with plexiglass shields around their desks.
These are just a few examples of how Yokota Air Base in western Tokyo — home to the U.S. Forces Japan — is coping with new normals during the novel coronavirus pandemic. The scenes offer a rare glimpse into the U.S. military’s battle against COVID-19, which has come under heavy scrutiny following virus outbreaks at bases in Okinawa in July.
While the Okinawa clusters stoked fears that the U.S. military’s presence was potentially undercutting Japanese authorities’ efforts to mitigate the spread of the virus, few signs of gaps in oversight or disregard for social distancing were visible on a recent visit to Yokota Air Base.
In particular, the practice of wearing face masks has, it seems, now permeated almost every aspect of life within the pivotal U.S. base, in an apparent nod to a host nation known for its established cultural practice of readily donning them.
“I think you may have heard about all the controversy about mask-wearing in the U.S. Well, I did not understand that, because I’ve lived in Japan for so long,” said Col. Andrew Campbell, commander of the 374th Airlift Wing stationed at the base.
“Mask-wear in Japan is very normal, and I tell my airmen how important it is for us to work in concert with our host nation and to try and do everything our host nation is doing,” he said. “It’s not a controversy for us.”
Located in the city of Fussa on the outskirts of Tokyo, Yokota Air Base is home to a population of about 12,000, and is something of a city-state that encompasses everything from schools to hospitals and chapels to supermarkets.
The base prides itself on having kept the number of COVID-19 cases exceptionally low, at below 20 in total, since the pandemic began engulfing the nation.
That is in stark contrast with some of its fellow installations nationwide where clusters have emerged, such as Marine Corps Air Station Futenma and Camp Hansen in Okinawa Prefecture, each of which have seen their total numbers of cases top 100.
The Okinawa outbreaks in July reignited controversy over the decades-old U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), under which members of the U.S. armed forces are granted special dispensation from “Japanese passport and visa laws and regulations.”
The arrangement has allowed many of them to fly directly into bases in Japan without undergoing testing protocols conducted at Japanese airports such as Narita and Haneda, creating the impression that they are skipping the nation’s otherwise rigorous quarantine measures.
The USFJ, however, disputes this narrative, describing measures it imposes on its incoming personnel — a 14-day quarantine known as restriction of movement (ROM) — as more draconian in nature than those of the Japanese government.
The ROM essentially involves personnel arriving under the SOFA procedures being restricted to their domiciles for 14 days and taking polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests upon exit, typically from day 10 to 12. If their results come back negative, they are allowed to end the self-quarantine.
While Japanese airports test individuals upon arrival, the U.S. military has opted to adopt the exit-test policy to better eliminate the possibility of a false negative, according to Capt. Robert Lipsitz, lead medical officer for the USFJ.
“We felt it would be better to test people when they leave their ROM. Because if you test people on arrival — if, let’s say, they sat next to someone (with the virus) on the plane — that test would never be positive,” Lipsitz said.
“The better time to test them is before you release them into the public, so if they did get exposed while they were traveling, you could then pick it up.”
While ROM is a top-level policy mandated by the USFJ, specifics of how to battle, and coexist with, the pandemic differ from installation to installation.
At Yokota, the so-called health protection conditions level remains moderate at the moment, which entails a raft of heightened restrictions to both off-base and on-base activities.
Service members, for example, are banned from engaging in off-base activities such as visiting nightclubs, karaoke, pachinko parlors, concerts, amusement parks or any place where social distancing cannot be maintained, said Lt. Col. Andrew Herman, commander for the 374th Medical Support Squadron.
There are also certain areas designated as off-limits to them regardless of the nature of their activities, such as central Tokyo, Yokohama and Hokkaido. Use of public transportation is also prohibited in principle, Herman said.
On base, face masks, hand sanitizers and diagrams that depict the recommended six-foot distance are now omnipresent, with facilities inside all seeking to adapt to the era of COVID-19.
On a recent Monday, a pair of sweat-drenched maintenance professionals were braving the sweltering heat in the flight line as they labored their way through the body of a C-130J Super Hercules aircraft, wearing masks all the while.
Any time that members of the aircrew approach each other anywhere near to and within six feet, they are now required to put on their face masks “even regardless of the conditions, so whether it’s hot outside, whether it’s rainy outside” just to minimize exposure, said Lt. Col. Steve Massie.
“Doesn’t matter how hot it is,” he added.
The Samurai Fitness Center, the main gym on base, hasn’t been immune to the new normal either.
After being downsized to what Tech. Sgt. Nathaniel Nelson, section chief of fitness and sports, described as the “bare minimum” of its function, the gym is now slowly rebuilding, with as much equipment as possible, spaced out, and the strict mask-wearing policy in place.
For U.S. servicemen, maintaining physical readiness is not just a matter of staying healthy, but more of a requirement that constitutes an integral part of their professionalism, Nelson said.
Service members even need to take what is known as a physical assessment test annually — or biannually, depending on their scores — to prove that they are “ready to execute our contingency mission tonight,” Nelson said.
“We, as military members, have to be ready just at the drop of a hat and go, and physical readiness is a key piece of it,” he said.
In fact, physical fitness is taken so seriously that the fate of the Samurai Fitness Center has been an issue of paramount concern for many. For a while, Nelson recalled, service members were unable to go anywhere, counting on the gym as the “the only way to get fitness.”
“There was no hiking, no cycling off base, anything like that,” he said. “So if you wanted anything other than walking on flat ground, or walking in the stairs in your house, we were the only option. So to be here and support that mission has been integral.”
Setting an example
Reopening the schools, meanwhile, didn’t generate as much heated debate in Yokota as it has in the U.S., Herman said.
“The debate in the U.S. really depends on where and how many cases are in the local area. And just the local area here and on base is much lower risk than certain areas in the States,” Herman said. “So I think we felt it was pretty low risk.”
Schools on base started a new semester at the end of last month. From cafeterias to classrooms, plastic barriers now surround each desk, mask-wearing is declared mandatory all day and each grade has a separate entrance to remain segregated from each other throughout the course of the day.
Naoki Kannari, secretary-general of a labor union for Japanese employees who work at Yokota Air Base, said the union leadership was unaware of any explicit complaints among its members regarding the way the U.S. military had implemented anti-infection measures. Still, he said, they do express a mild unease over an influx of service members from abroad.
“Since the U.S. is the world’s biggest coronavirus hotspot, it’s true there are concerns among some Japanese workers that those transferred from America might not be virus-free,” he said.
But by and large, the Japanese workforce is satisfied with the “thoroughness” with which personnel who are granted SOFA status have abided by social distancing, worn face masks and sanitized their hands, he said.
At their most unguarded moments, they are sometimes seen lowering masks while deep in conversation with their close friends, but even then “they often put masks back on when approached by Japanese colleagues, which some of our union members take as a sign that they are being considerate toward us,” he said.
Kannari considers himself and his colleagues lucky, taking solace in the exemplary behavior of Team Yokota that he says union members in other regions cannot necessarily take for granted.
Last month, Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, in Yamaguchi Prefecture, debarred a family of four. They arrived at the Haneda Airport in Tokyo via a commercial flight from the U.S., but used public transportation before conducting quarantine for 14 days — an action that violated USFJ and MCAS Iwakuni orders.
The family was tested for COVID-19 upon arrival at Haneda, in accordance with the requirement by the Japanese government, and was later notified that three of them had tested positive.
The incident was “deeply regrettable” but had caused no additional COVID-19 cases within Japan, MCAS Iwakuni wrote in a statement.
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.