COVID-19: New Fears About U.S. Military Bases In Japan

In both Okinawa and Iwakuni, locals worry that American soldiers and their families are importing the virus and not doing enough to contain it.

Temperature checks at Camp Courtney, Okinawa
Temperature checks at Camp Courtney, Okinawa
Philippe Mesmer

IWAKUNI — On the ground floor of a small beige building, between two vacant lots along the highway that leads to the U.S. military base in Iwakuni, in southwestern Japan, the Sako cafe is bustling again after closing briefly due to the coronavirus.

The walls are covered with pictures of fighter jets, dollar bills left behind by visiting servicemen, and an autographed picture of George W. Bush getting off the presidential helicopter. Missy Hamano, who has been preparing BLT sandwiches for 54 years — for G.I. customers and their families — is hard at work.

"Since the reopening in early August, we've had a lot of people, but customers are still cautious and buying mostly take-out," the lively, elderly woman explains.

The eatery had to shut down for almost two weeks in July after COVID-19 was discovered at the American base. The virus was imported by the family of a U.S. soldier, and it was a shock not just for the city of Iwakuni but for all of Japan.

After arriving in Tokyo on July 12, the family members were tested for the virus at the airport. But rather than wait for the results, they boarded another plane to Iwakuni. Once there, the results came in. They'd tested positive but asymptomatic, and spent 24 days in quarantine.

The U.S. military base subsequently confirmed a new case, also asymptomatic, on Aug. 6 and reiterated its commitment to "maintain aggressive measures to mitigate the risk of exposure to COVID-19, both on and off the base."

What happens on the American base is always a sensitive issue in this city of 130,000 inhabitants, known for its wooden "Kintai" bridge, built in 1673. The coronavirus cases are no exception, and yet don't seem to have caused any lasting damage to the relationship, which dates back to 1952, when U.S. marines were first stationed here.

Disinfecting a vehicle on Camp Kinser, Okinawa — Photo: Hailey Clay/U.S. Marines/ZUMA Wire/ZUMAPRESS

The soldiers share the facilities with a unit of the Japanese navy, and as one as municipal employee (who prefers to remain anonymous) explains, they also have a history of intermingling with locals. The man grew up in a suburban area just outside the base, and recalls that there were American families in the neighborhood who would give his family gifts and invite them to barbecues.

"It was fun and lively on the weekends because girls would come from Hiroshima, an hour away by train, to have fun with the GIs. But that hasn't been done for a long time," he says.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the U.S. military ordered its members arriving in Japan to respect a two-week quarantine. These measures were reinforced in July, after the incident with the infected family.

Now staff are required to take a test on day 12 of their two-week isolation period and wait the results before resuming their normal lives. Also, as of July 21, the Pentagon authorized U.S. bases in Japan to disclose the number of positive cases. Earlier in the year, in March, U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper announced that for security reasons, that information shouldn't be disclosed.

But while the inhabitants of Iwakuni seem to have regained confidence thanks to the measures taken by the U.S. military command, the bases in Okinawa — two hours away by plane — continue to arouse mistrust.

On Aug. 17, the Okinawa islands, in far southern Japan, counted 1,656 cases, 33 more than the day before, including 114 at the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma and 162 at Camp Hansen, a U.S. Marine Corps base. The seriousness of the situation prompted Governor Denny Tamaki to extend the state of emergency, which began Aug. 1 and was initially supposed to last just two weeks, until Aug. 29.

The local authorities did not hesitate to blame the Americans for the increased number of infections. They pointed specifically to July 4, when U.S. soldiers celebrated on beaches and in town. Mamoru Henna, a representative of Japanese employees on U.S. bases, told the daily paper The Japan Times that questions were also being asked about the "seriousness of compliance" on the bases.

Governor Tamaki, elected in 2018 on a position hostile to the American military presence, described the attitude of the military as "regrettable at a time when the people of Okinawa are doing everything possible to avoid further contamination."

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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