TOKYO – Japan will tighten coronavirus restrictions in three regions where U.S. military bases are located to curb a spike in Covid-19 that some officials said the bases helped fuel the fire.
The restrictions, which the authorities refer to as “priority measures”, will be lifted for the first time since September when Japan lifted emergency controls that pervaded most of the country last year.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said at a meeting that measures, which enable steps such as limiting the hours of operation of restaurants and bars, are needed to curb the increase in cases.
The infectious Omicron variant was found in about 80 percent of the Japanese prefectures. The total number of new infections will exceed 5,000 on Friday, the Yomiuri newspaper reported, compared to an average of around 200 per day last month.
“We have to be prepared for the rapid spread of the infection,” Health Minister Shigeyuki Goto told reporters.
“There are cases when there are no overseas travel and the route of infection is unknown while the Delta Tribe continues to spread as well.”
The new measures in southern Okinawa and western Hiroshima and Yamaguchi will last from Sunday to the end of the month.
All three regions are home to bases for the U.S. military, which on Thursday announced stricter infection controls at Japan’s urging after base outbreaks apparently spilled over into communities.
Prefectural governors had called for the tougher measures after seeing an increase in cases caused by the Omicron variant.
Okinawa’s southern chain of islands, which is home to 70 percent of U.S. military facilities in Japan, was hit hardest by what appears to be what appears to be the country’s sixth wave of pandemics.
The prefecture reported 1,414 new cases on Friday, a record up from 981 on Thursday.
“This number is likely to remain high and steadily increase,” said Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki, who sharply criticized the infection controls at US bases.
Infections are also increasing in large cities. Tokyo said it found 922 new cases on Friday, most since September 15.
Tokyo’s government plans to step up countermeasures by instructing restaurants to limit their diners from eight to groups of four, the Kyodo news agency reported.
Amid ongoing frustration with U.S. bases in Japan, the two countries must also work together on another issue that dominates officials: China’s growing power.
The two allies’ comments in a joint statement following a virtual meeting of their foreign and defense ministers underscored how growing concerns about China – and growing tensions over Taiwan – have brought Japan’s security role into focus.
Ministers expressed concern that China’s efforts to “undermine the rules-based order” pose “political, economic, military and technological challenges for the region and the world,” according to their statement.
“They decided to work together to deter and respond to destabilizing activities in the region,” the statement said.
Ministers also said they had “serious and persistent concerns” about human rights in China’s Xinjiang and Hong Kong regions, and stressed the importance of cross-strait peace and stability.
In a separate virtual summit, Japan and Australia signed a defense cooperation agreement on Thursday.
China has submitted strict representations to all three countries.
“We regret and reject the gross interference by the US, Japan and Australia in China’s internal affairs and the invention of false information to defame China and undermine the solidarity and mutual trust of countries in the region,” said the State Department spokesman , Wang Wenbin, a daily briefing in Beijing.
Pacifist Japan has close economic ties with China, but is increasingly concerned that it could crack down on democratic Taiwan, which it describes as part of China.
“This is clearly a combined message reflecting a common concern, and not a case of US arm twisting to get Japan to engage in vague euphemisms,” said Daniel Russel, who served as US chief diplomat for under President Barack Obama Asia served and now is with the Asia Society Policy Institute.
“In particular, the expression of shared determination to respond to destabilizing activities if necessary, acts as a strong expression of alliance solidarity and determination.”