US military: Troops are exempt from Japan’s COVID-19 tracking apps, but don’t push it
By JOSEPH DITZLER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 30, 2021
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TOKYO — U.S. military travelers returning to Japan should avoid downloading COVID-19 tracking applications or signing pledges to follow tracking procedures, according to a policy update Friday by Yokota Air Base in western Tokyo.
But don’t pick that hill to die on, the senior enlisted leader for U.S. Forces Japan said recently. If airport authorities insist that returning travelers download apps and sign a pledge, do so rather than spend time arguing the case.
“Just because you have the right to cross a crosswalk and you have the right of way, do you really want to step in front of a car?” Command Chief Master Sgt. Richard Winegardner Jr. said April 22 on American Forces Network Radio.
Do not create an international incident, Winegardner said. Instead, download the app and sign the pledge and then delete and disregard them later.
The U.S. military in Japan had reported one new case of the coronavirus as of 6 p.m. Friday. Kadena Air Base on Okinawa announced via Facebook the patient contracted the virus after close contact with a previously infected person. Kadena on Wednesday evening reported two other cases resulting from close contacts. As a result, an unspecified number of further close contacts were also quarantined, according to the base.
Also Friday, Tokyo reported another 698 people had contracted the coronavirus, according to public broadcaster NHK. For the first time in 29 days, the one-day count in Tokyo is lower than the same day the previous week.
At Japan’s international airports, the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare requires anyone entering the country to install tracking apps like the Overseas Entrants Locator, install Skype or WhatsApp for video calls and set their smartphones to save location information, according to the ministry website.
Japan requires a 14-day quarantine period of new travelers to ensure they are not carrying the coronavirus. The apps help Japanese authorities enforce the quarantine.
“The airport quarantine will check your smartphone when you arrive in Japan,” according to the ministry. Travelers without a phone may be asked to rent one at their own expense. Arriving without the apps already downloaded may mean delays at the airport.
But Yokota, headquarters of U.S. Forces Japan, said anyone covered by the status of forces agreement, or SOFA, is “not required to download COVID-19 tracking applications nor sign pledges to follow [government of Japan] COVID-19 procedures.”
SOFA establishes the rights, privileges and responsibilities of U.S. forces and of individual U.S. service members, Defense Department civilians and their families in Japan. People covered by SOFA may travel to and from Japan with the appropriate approval, even though Japan has generally banned incoming foreigners during the coronavirus pandemic.
Operational security is one reason U.S. forces should avoid those apps, according to the amended restriction-of-movement policy signed Friday by Yokota commander Col. Andrew Campbell. Restricted movement is what the U.S. military calls the minimum 14-day quarantine Japan requires of all arriving travelers.
“Some evidence suggests foreign entities have collected user location information and smart phone data from similar applications,” the policy states. “Because of this risk, SOFA individuals are discouraged from downloading such software/apps.”
Winegardner suggested showing the airport authorities the SOFA passport stamp and explaining that the app requirement does not apply. If that fails, he suggested going with the flow.
“It’s not worth that extra time at the airport,” he said. “It’s not worth dying on the stake for saying you can’t make me do this. Just understand, it’s not a requirement. Please don’t make your stand at the airport alone and afraid.”