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Inside the U.S. Marine base in Okinawa at the heart of a coronavirus outbreak

Okinawa COVID-19 cases soar
Okinawa COVID-19 cases soar 02:38

Okinawa — The U.S. military in Japan reported three new infections on Friday, a low figure that suggested the coronavirus outbreak among U.S. military personnel in Okinawa was plateauing. At least 141 infections have been confirmed at American bases on the island since cases started to surge almost two weeks ago.

Japanese officials have only counted 149 COVID-19 cases among the rest of the island's 1.4 million people since February.

CBS News was granted access and given permission to interview personnel on two U.S. military installations on Thursday, including U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, the worst-hit of the five bases and camps with coronavirus cases. We also visited Camp Foster, home of the "Joint COVID Response Cell" that serves as the U.S. military's command center in Okinawa for contact tracing and testing troops across all branches of the military.

"It's not as bad as it possibly could be, because healthy people are getting better from this disease," said U.S. Navy flight surgeon Margrette Moore. "We have two isolation barracks right now, and they're not full."

But the worrying surge in cases has, nonetheless, left thousands of U.S. military personnel and their families under some form of restricted movement, according to Marine Corps spokesman Major Ken Kunze. In total, 35,000 to 40,000 people, including Marines, their families and civilian personnel, are affected by the restrictions. 

COVID outbreak on U.S. bases on Okinawa 02:10

"There is no off-base liberty authorized," Colonel Neil Owens told CBS News. "We are not allowed to conduct essential services without specific permission from a commander, which basically means that if you live out in town, you go home and you come to work, and that's really the only interaction you have off the base."

While local officials, including Okinawa's governor, have suggested large July 4th parties both on and off of the U.S. bases may have contributed to the current outbreak, Owens said the U.S. military had "not found any connection" between the celebrations and the confirmed cases identified thus far.

"We are operationally ready," Owens added. "We can respond to any contingency that we need to. We are here to ensure that we can defend Japan. We have some challenges, but nothing that's preventing us from being able to operate and to fulfil our mission."

Okinawa has been dubbed the U.S. military's "keystone in the Pacific." The island sits closer to Taiwan's capital, Taipei, than it does to Tokyo, and it's a pivotal foothold for Washington — both to protect Asian allies including Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, and to project U.S. power and be able to react to increasingly-aggressive military moves by China in the region, and the ever-present threat from North Korea. 

But Okinawan critics of the U.S. military presence say their tiny island — about one third the size of the state of Rhode Island — bears an oversized burden for Japan.

"We are so, so angry," 80-year-old peace activist and Okinawan icon Suzuyo Takazato told CBS News. She often says more than half of all U.S. troops in Japan are stationed here, while the island only constitutes 0.6% of Japan's total land area.

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Japanese raise fists and shout slogans as they protest against the American military presence at Kadena Air Base in Cyatan, Okinawa, in this May 21, 2016 file photo. JIJI PRESS/AFP/Getty

Anti-U.S. sentiment in Okinawa has seen anti-U.S. protests on the island many times over the years. In 2016, local anger flared after a former Marine was accused of raping and killing a 20-year-old Japanese woman. The military contractor was later convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

"There's so much crime now happening," said Takazato, who's been cataloguing incidents involving U.S. personnel for decades, which include drunk driving, theft, sexual assault and even murder.

But she blames Japan's government more than the U.S. military.

"It's really discrimination against Okinawa by Japan. I am not angry (at) individual soldiers. This is the Japanese government's decision to use Okinawa to concentrate U.S. troops," Takazato said, adding that she has friends who have married U.S. soldiers.

"Personally, I don't hate them. But I really want them to know Okinawa's history, the whole situation. I'm really angry that they're ignorant," she said.

Takazato said she wishes every U.S. military service member would leave Okinawa, "because we have been suffering 75 years already… but realistically, we want to reduce troop numbers."

Japanese officials have confirmed that at least one Okinawa resident, an elderly taxi driver, was infected by a U.S. service member on the island.  

Takazato said she believed a reduction in the U.S. troop presence would at least decrease accidents and crimes committed by U.S. soldiers against the Okinawan people. She now counts the current surge in coronavirus infections among those violations.

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