Ministry matters

Department and US military at odds over COVID-19 test exemption

A communications confusion has created a new rift between the Department of Foreign Affairs and U.S. Forces Japan over COVID-19 measures affecting thousands of U.S. service members stationed in Japan.

US military officials insist they informed the Foreign Office in September that military personnel sent to Japan would be exempt from COVID-19 testing when leaving the United States for service in Japan.

But the Foreign Office maintains that it was informed of the exemption at the end of December.

“Even closer cooperation will be needed in the future to ensure that such a situation does not happen again,” Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi said at a press conference on February 4.

U.S. forces in Japan initiated the testing waiver from September on the grounds that COVID-19 vaccinations had made great strides in the United States.

But starting late last year, COVID-19 cases at U.S. military bases in Okinawa Prefecture and elsewhere, as well as in surrounding communities, began to rise, primarily due to the spread of the Omicron variant.

State Department officials said Dec. 24 that they had confirmed the testing exemption after consulting with U.S. military officials. Ministry officials offered a similar explanation during Diet debates.

But on February 2, Japan Broadcasting Corp. (NHK) reported that U.S. military authorities responded with a comment that Japanese officials had been informed of the exemption much earlier.

This led the State Department to inform US military officials that their understanding of the situation was incorrect.

During his February 4 press conference, Hayashi explained that the US military had submitted a response the day before. According to Hayashi, the US military continued to maintain that it informed the State Department of the exemption at a much earlier date.

But State Department officials again informed the US military that no such notification had been received.

Hayashi admitted that a communication mix-up had occurred and added that the issue would be taken up by a subcommittee of the Japan-US Joint Committee which discusses quarantine and public health issues.

Hayashi also acknowledged at the press conference that the State Department’s steps to ensure the US military adhered to promised infection control measures may not have been enough.