Shadowed by Pandemic, Olympic Torch Relay Begins in Japan

FUKUSHIMA, Japan — When Bruna Noguchi signed as much as be a torchbearer for the Tokyo Olympics a 12 months and a half in the past — earlier than the coronavirus pandemic, earlier than the resignations of two high officers over sexist remarks — she by no means dreamed it could possibly be a controversial resolution.

But because the relay kicked off on Thursday morning in Fukushima Prefecture, the ceremony and people collaborating in it have been on the heart of a nationwide debate, with many questioning whether or not the Games ought to go on in spite of the virus, the ballooning prices and different rising challenges.

While greater than three dozen folks, together with about 20 celebrities, have withdrawn from the relay, Ms. Noguchi, 22, has determined to take part. She is one in every of 10,000 individuals who will carry the torch over the subsequent 4 months, from Fukushima to Okinawa in the far south to Hokkaido in the north and on to the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo.

“I can understand the feelings of the people who have decided to withdraw from the relay,” Ms. Noguchi, who’s from Gunma Prefecture, northwest of Tokyo, stated in a latest interview. “But I’m not worried.”

The Japanese authorities had envisioned the beginning of the torch relay as a triumphant second, and their alternative of Fukushima because the launching level was closely symbolic. Japan is asking these Games the “Recovery Olympics,” highlighting the nation’s restoration from the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear catastrophe that ravaged Fukushima and different components of northeastern Japan, in addition to the world’s restoration from the coronavirus pandemic.

Seiko Hashimoto, president of the Tokyo organizing committee, stated that it was “very meaningful” that the relay would begin in Fukushima and that she wished for “the entire world to take a look at the reconstruction done in East Japan.”

“Everyone has to feel safe and secure — that is the top priority,” Ms. Hashimoto stated throughout a information convention final week.

But the celebration on Thursday was subdued, and the relay was being carried out below plenty of restrictions. Traditional Japanese drummers and a hula dance group opened the ceremony, performing earlier than a gaggle of round 150 attendees, who sat at socially distanced intervals and applauded politely.

The Olympic flame was lit in Greece final March and has been stored burning in Japan over the past 12 months of pandemic. As a number of celebrities took to the stage to ship transient speeches forward of the torch’s departure, one in every of them made a nod to the controversy over the relay, noting that there had been “many opinions” about whether or not to take part.

Members of Nadeshiko Japan, the nation’s World Cup-winning ladies’s soccer crew, carried the torch for the primary few hundred yards of the relay as a small group of reporters and dignitaries seemed on.

After the primary wave of the pandemic compelled a yearlong delay of the Olympics, the Japanese authorities argues that it’s now prepared to carry the Games.

Many in Japan, nevertheless, stay frightened that the virus has but to run its course, and that the Games and surrounding occasions danger worsening the nation’s comparatively gentle expertise of the pandemic. Reported coronavirus deaths stay below 9,000, however the nation continues to be recording over 1,000 instances every day, and well being specialists warn {that a} fourth wave is in sight.

The authorities ended a virtually three-month state of emergency in the Tokyo area on Sunday. In a ballot by the Asahi newspaper, over 50 % of respondents stated that it had been lifted too early. Some Twitter users accused Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who has confronted a backlash for his insistence on holding the Games regardless of widespread public opposition, of timing the choice for the beginning of the torch relay.

Case numbers have surged in latest weeks in Miyagi and Yamagata Prefectures in the Tohoku area of Japan, which additionally consists of Fukushima Prefecture, and a neighborhood state of emergency was declared final week.

Tatsuya Maruyama, the governor of Shimane Prefecture, in western Japan, stated early final month that it was “difficult to cooperate” with the torch relay and the Tokyo Games due to the coronavirus state of affairs.

He just isn’t the one one cautious concerning the occasions. In addition to the superstar withdrawals, Mr. Suga himself is not going to attend the relay, saying that he had come to the choice “after comprehensively considering parliamentary schedules.”

On Thursday morning, Mr. Suga stated from Tokyo that “this is a valuable opportunity to make the public realize that the Olympics and Paralympic Games are fast approaching.”

Several of the high-profile pullouts occurred simply earlier than the beginning of the relay. Norio Sasaki, the coach who led the nationwide ladies’s soccer crew to the World Cup victory in 2011, stated on Wednesday that the captain of that crew, Homare Sawa, had withdrawn due to well being causes. Ms. Sawa had been anticipated to be the primary torchbearer for the Japan leg of the relay.

Rina Akiyama, a Paralympic gold medalist, pulled out over considerations concerning the coronavirus. She has been one of many few high-profile contributors to obviously cite the pandemic as the rationale for withdrawing.

“I didn’t withdraw to influence society’s opinions on the Games, but because I chose to withdraw, I thought that people would be keen to know why,” she stated in an interview on Tuesday, including, “I wanted to tell the truth.”

On Thursday morning, when the torch left J-Village — a reconstructed soccer stadium that served as a base for nuclear restoration operations throughout the Fukushima catastrophe — it was below circumstances that the federal government had not deliberate for final 12 months.

Hoping to curb the virus, the authorities have positioned many restrictions on the torch relay. The grand ceremony on Thursday and the primary part of the relay have been closed to the general public. Routes is not going to be introduced till 30 minutes earlier than the beginning time, and spectators can attend the relay solely in their residence prefectures.

No cheering or shouting is allowed, and followers should provide “support with applause or using distributed goods.” The relay might be live-streamed by NHK, Japan’s public broadcaster.

Despite the precautions, some folks in Fukushima stated they have been nonetheless frightened. Shuhei Ohno, 34, a chef in Koriyama, stated he feared that the torch relay might “raise the infection risk” nationwide.

“The vaccine hasn’t spread widely enough in Japan yet, so how can there already be plans to host the Olympics?” he stated.

Still, the organizers are urgent forward. Over the subsequent 121 days, Ms. Noguchi, the runner from Gunma, and her fellow torchbearers will trot throughout Japan’s 47 prefectures, together with islands off the coast of Tokyo, earlier than finishing the torch’s journey on July 23, the day of the opening ceremony.

Ms. Noguchi stays sanguine. She needs to make use of her 200-meter run with the torch later this month to thank the group that raised her, in addition to to convey hope after a 12 months plagued by an increase in suicides, financial hardship and intense sacrifices by well being care staff.

Although the authorities appear decided to carry the Games, Ms. Noguchi acknowledged that if the coronavirus state of affairs worsened severely between now and July, it might nonetheless pressure a postponement or cancellation.

“At least in that case, I was still able to run in the torch relay,” she stated.

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