Okinawa, Japan — The biggestoutbreak within the U.S. military anywhere in the world continues to grow. U.S. Forces Japan confirmed Wednesday another 36 , bringing the total to at least 136 since the U.S. military reported its first cases there last week.
Until then, all of Okinawa had seen only 148 confirmed cases of COVID-19 since February, with Japanese authorities managing to contain the spread of the virus that causes the disease.
In a sign of the growing tension between Japanese officials and the U.S. military in Okinawa, Defense Minister Taro Kono has pointed to “several problems” with the U.S. response to the pandemic. He notably avoided giving specifics when pressed by reporters earlier this week.
Local media in Okinawa have reported that July 4th celebrations, both on and off the U.S. bases, which hundreds if not thousands of people attended, may be at least partly to blame. But medical experts warn the virus may have spread through multiple other vectors.
“Okinawa residents are extremely anxious” about the spread of infection at U.S. military bases, said Okinawa governor Denny Tamaki, who flew to Tokyo Wednesday for a meeting with Defense Minsiter Kono to air his island’s grievances.
“We’re extremely concerned,” Kono told the governor. “We’ll deal with it.”
Nearly half of the U.S. military’s 50,000 troops in Japan are stationed on Okinawa, a subtropical island sometimes referred to as Japan’s Hawaii with an area about one third the size of Rhode Island.
Among Washington’s military establishment, Okinawa has been called America’s “keystone” in the Pacific. The island sits closer to Taiwan’s capital, Taipei, than it does to Tokyo. It’s a pivotal foothold for Washington, both to protect Asian allies including Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, and to project U.S. power and be able to react to increasingly-aggressive military moves by China in the region, and the ever-present threat from North Korea.
As of Wednesday, at least some restrictions had been imposed on five affected U.S. bases on Okinawa, with the two hardest-hit under de-facto lockdowns. All American troops and their families on the island have been barred from leaving bases without approval, and banned from local restaurants and public transport.
Stretching along a 25-mile swath of road on Okinawa’s southern half, U.S. installations with confirmed coronavirus infections include Camp Kinser, Marine Corps Airbase Futenma, Marine Corps Airbase Kadena, Camp McTureous and Camp Hansen.
Futenma has the most infections, with at least 71 confirmed cases of COVID-19. Kadena is the U.S.’ biggest base in Asia. Both bases are within five miles of the town of Chatan, a popular nightlife destination for U.S. troops that has an area called the “American Village,” geared to the tastes of soldiers and tourists.
The area has been at the center of previous crimes involving U.S. service members, and it has been a thorn in the side of Okinawa’s prefectural government.
The coronavirus outbreak has only fueled that anger, which rose further with confirmation this week from U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, on the Japanese mainland, that an American couple and their 10-year-old daughter had tested positive for the virus after arriving from the U.S.
The family flew in on a commercial flight from the U.S. to Tokyo’s Haneda airport on Sunday, and like all other international arrivals they were given COVID-19 tests. But before getting the results of those tests, the family reportedly boarded a domestic flight — against rules barring newly-arrived passengers from public transport — to get to the Marine base.
Health officials are now racing to track down and contact all people the family may have come into contact with during their travels.
The Japanese capital, meanwhile, has raised its alert back to the highest possible level after the average rate of new daily infections exceeded the number reached under the state of emergency in April.
CBS News’ Lucy Craft in Tokyo contributed to this report.