Corona pandemic: Japan’s wave of omicrons stirs up distrust of the stationed US armed forces
Such The Covid 19 pandemic in Japan had paused for three months. But now Asia’s oldest industrial nation is also being flooded by the new, highly infectious Omicron variant – and this is fueling the latent unease towards the US armed forces stationed in the country. Could they be the reason for the rapid outbreak?
Since the beginning of the year, the number of corona cases identified has risen from a few hundred to more than 10,000. This is already more than in the penultimate wave from May 2020. Only during the Summer Olympics in Tokyo were more cases found. Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida therefore again declared a semi-emergency in the three prefectures of Okinawa, Yamaguchi and Hiroshima, which have one characteristic in common: they are home to US bases or, in Hiroshima’s case, are in the immediate vicinity.
Experts believe that Japan would later also have been infected by the highly infectious variant. But not even Japan’s pro-American rights were afraid to draw the connection between the current virus sources, the protective power of the USA and failures of the conservative government at the beginning of an important election year.
Okinawa is a conflict zone of the US-Japanese alliance
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This is even relevant in geopolitical terms – for the alliance between Japan and its protective power, the USA. Because on the island of Okinawa, on which most of the US bases in Japan are located, the residents of this year could make an important alliance project more difficult in several elections: the move of the large Futenma base of the US marines from the city of Ginowan to the, which has been planned for decades sparsely populated coast of the city of Nago.
The move of the US airbase to Camp Schwab is considered an important part of the American deployment strategy in Asia. With the growing risk of war around Taiwan, Okinawa is gaining importance as the front line against China, including for Japan. The Japanese government therefore wants to swear the population to take on greater military burdens and is looking for new allies like Australia.
On January 23, however, a mayoral election will take place in Nago. And the outbreak of the pandemic could now strengthen the opposition candidate, who, like Prefectural Governor Denny Tamaki, wants to prevent the garrison from settling in his own town.
And that’s just the beginning of an election marathon: After further regional elections, half of the Japanese upper house will be re-elected in July. Governor Tamaki will run for re-election in the fall. And politically, he did not miss the opportunity to criticize the US presence.
Tamaki said at the beginning of January that he was “angry” about what he believed to be inadequate infection controls at US bases, which allowed the Omicron variant to spread to the public. And with that he spoke to many Japanese from the soul.
Japan is the USA’s most important Asian ally and with 50,000 soldiers stationed it is one of the most important locations worldwide. Yet 75 percent of the area of the US bases in Japan are concentrated in Okinawa. The mood of the local population has therefore been divided for decades.
The Japanese have special rights for US soldiers
Some of the residents welcome the stationing, as the bases are an important economic factor on the structurally weak archipelago. Other islanders are at least in favor of breaking bases. Because in their eyes they have been bearing the brunt of Japan’s defense for too long.
The special treatment of US soldiers on many legal issues is always a source of conflict. The fact that the Allies are exempted from Japan’s test and quarantine regulations for incoming citizens, including a 14-day quarantine, is now boiling up again with the Omikron variant. Because when it comes to neighboring Korea, the US armed forces have to be more subject to local rules.
How widespread the dissatisfaction is, the right-wing US and pro-government daily “Sankei” made clear on its front page on Monday. The main story explained why the new Prime Minister Kishida, who previously ruled over a three-month pandemic hiatus, is now extending the entry ban for non-Japanese residents.
Underneath the headline was emblazoned that US soldiers will now also be subject to exit restrictions. And a third article stated that in the three prefectures with a connection to America there was now a semi-emergency for the population that limited restaurant hours.
The Omikron variant could decide on Prime Minister Kishida
So far, this has not harmed the head of government politically. According to an opinion poll by the public television broadcaster NHK over the weekend, the approval rate for his cabinet rose by seven percentage points to 57 percent. This is a high value by Japanese standards.
Nevertheless, like his predecessor Yoshihide Suga, who resigned in September after a year in office, he could lose popularity due to his pandemic policy. The “Sankei” asked critically on Wednesday whether it was justified for the Japanese government to maintain isolation. Because the spread of the omicron variant probably originated in the American military presence.
Instead, the newspaper accused Kishida of not having started the booster program at the end of the year. Only now has Kishida decided to bring the start forward. This could now be politically dangerous for him. Former LDP health minister and Tokyo mayor Yoichi Masuzoe accused the government of poor management of the pandemic and especially vaccine stocks on Wednesday. “And the media has finally started reporting on it.”
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