• Kyodo, Bloomberg, Jiji


Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi urged the U.S. on Thursday to impose restrictions on troops stationed in Japan amid COVID-19 outbreaks at bases and their surroundings, with Okinawa Prefecture seeing record cases and requesting quasi-emergency measures.

In a phone conversation with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Hayashi called for stronger virus measures, including limits on excursions off-base, to relieve anxiety among local residents, according to a statement issued by Japan’s Foreign Ministry.

In response, Blinken said it is important to ensure the health and safety of not only U.S. military personnel but also local residents, adding that Washington will "do everything it can" by working together with Tokyo to curb the spread of the virus, according to Hayashi.

U.S. Forces Japan said in a release issued after the talks that "more stringent mitigation measures" will be introduced for all U.S. military installations in the country "due to the recent increase in COVID-19 cases" at their facilities.

Wearing a mask will be required in public places as part of the new measures, and within on-base facilities until a negative test result is confirmed, according to U.S. Forces Japan.

The talks, held at the request of Blinken, came as new COVID-19 cases have been rising in prefectures hosting U.S. military bases such as Okinawa and Yamaguchi, with clusters of cases at U.S. force facilities, amid the spread of the highly transmissible omicron variant.

Okinawa Prefecture confirmed 981 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, a record high, surpassing the previous record of 809 observed on Aug. 25 last year. The daily figure had been around 50 just a few days ago, but surged to 623 on Wednesday.

Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki said Thursday that the speed of the spread has been outrageous.

"We can't expect an improvement in figures," Tamaki told reporters following a meeting on COVID-19 measures. "If we see infections spread further, we'd have no choice but to take even stricter measures."

With the spike in cases, Okinawa on Thursday requested the central government to place it under a quasi-state of emergency, which will likely be in place from Sunday to Jan. 31.

Based on the request, the government of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is expected to declare a quasi-emergency on Friday — the first such measure since he took office in October as Japan had been seeing a downtrend in new cases in recent months.

"If requested, the government will swiftly consider a declaration by working closely with the governor and listening to expert evaluations," Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno told a news conference earlier in the day.

Under a quasi-state of emergency, local governors and mayors are allowed to impose stricter anti-virus measures and request that dining establishments shorten business hours.

In Okinawa, a group infection was reported at the U.S. Marine Corps' Camp Hansen in mid-December.

Hayashi said last month that U.S. forces in Japan had exempted their personnel from testing for the virus upon departure from the United States since early September, in line with U.S. policy, but this was changed at Japan's request.

All U.S. forces personnel are now required to get tested 72 hours ahead of departure from the United States, and within 24 hours after their arrival in Japan.

New cases have also surged at U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in Yamaguchi Prefecture. Neighboring Hiroshima Prefecture on Thursday requested the central government declare a quasi-emergency, while Yamaguchi Prefecture prepared to make a similar request.

Rising numbers of cases were also seen elsewhere in the nation. Tokyo reported 641 new cases Thursday, the first time the figure topped 600 since September. Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura said the prefecture was likely to record round 500 new cases Thursday.

Separately, Okinawa's prefectural Board of Education announced that the number of students attending classes at prefecture-run schools will be limited from Friday. Schools will also be urged to close classes with infected students and consider emergency school closures if a spate of class closures occur.

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