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Japan decides to boost COVID curbs in 3 regions hosting U.S. bases

Quasi-emergency starts Sunday in Okinawa, Hiroshima, Yamaguchi prefectures

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Friday three Japanese prefectures hit by surging COVID-19 cases will be placed under a quasi-state of emergency, in line with requests by their governors, who linked the recent sharp gains to U.S. military bases.

The quasi-emergency declarations for Okinawa, Yamaguchi and Hiroshima will be effective from Sunday to Jan. 31, allowing the prefectures to bolster anti-coronavirus measures and request that dining establishments shorten their business hours as health experts warn of Japan's sixth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The enforcement of the measures, the first under Kishida, who became prime minister in October, is designed to rein in rapidly spreading infections, driven partly by the Omicron variant, and prevent local health systems from being stretched too thin.

A government panel gave the go-ahead before Kishida's decision, just as the Okinawa government said the daily count of COVID-19 cases has hit a single-day record of 1,414, up from 981 the previous day.

"We need to keep in mind that a further, rapid acceleration in the spread of infections is on the horizon," health minister Shigeyuki Goto said at a press conference.

Japan had seen a clear downtrend in newly confirmed coronavirus cases as vaccinations progressed. But the daily count topped 5,000 for the first time since Sept. 17, with community spread of Omicron found in areas including Tokyo and Osaka.

Tokyo on Friday reported 922 new COVID-19 cases, the highest daily number since Sept. 15.

The governors of Okinawa, Yamaguchi and Hiroshima believe sharp increases in COVID-19 cases in their prefectures are connected to the spread of Omicron at U.S. military bases.

Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki said there is "no doubt" that such facilities are one of the major factors, while Yamaguchi Gov. Tsugumasa Muraoka cited results of genomic analyses of virus samples taken from U.S. base workers and residents.

Okinawa is home to the bulk of U.S. military forces in Japan, and a cluster of infections has been confirmed at the U.S. Marine Corps' Camp Hansen in the southern island prefecture. Yamaguchi in western Japan hosts U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, hit by rising COVID-19 cases that apparently have also affected neighboring Hiroshima.

Kishida has stressed the need for the United States to take stricter anti-virus measures at U.S. military bases in Japan but remains cautious about making the same assessment as the governors.

"It's difficult at this point to identify the cause and routes of spreading infections" in the prefectures, he told reporters on Thursday.

The stakes are high for Kishida, who saw his predecessor Yoshihide Suga step down after public dissatisfaction grew over what was perceived as the government's poor handling of the pandemic.

The rapid increase in infections has made health experts worry that hospitals will be overwhelmed if the trend continues.

Kishida has vowed to take all necessary steps to pre-empt a surge in coronavirus cases, banning the entry of nonresident foreign nationals in Japan and accelerating the rollout of vaccine booster shots.

While a full state of emergency is declared over a whole prefecture, a quasi-emergency can be more limited in terms of coverage and restrictions.

Governors can ask and then order businesses such as restaurants to close early and stop serving alcohol. Defying such orders without legitimate reasons may result in a fine of up to 200,000 yen ($1,700).

All of Okinawa will come under the quasi-emergency declaration. However, in Yamaguchi and Hiroshima, only certain cities and towns will be subject to the declaration.

The daily COVID-19 count in Tokyo has also been rising sharply in recent days, and Gov. Yuriko Koike said the battle against the coronavirus has entered "a new phase."

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