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 determination.

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

Whereas greater than three dozen individuals, together with about 20 celebrities, have withdrawn from the relay, Ms.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

“I can perceive the sentiments of the individuals who have determined to withdraw from the relay,” Ms. Noguchi, who’s from Gunma Prefecture, northwest of Tokyo, mentioned in a latest interview. “However I’m not frightened.”

The Japanese authorities had envisioned the beginning of the torch relay as a triumphant second, and their selection of Fukushima because the launching level was closely symbolic. Japan is looking these Video games the “Restoration 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, mentioned that it was “very significant” that the relay would begin in Fukushima and that she wished for “the complete world to try the reconstruction finished in East Japan.”

“Everybody has to really feel protected and safe — that’s the high precedence,” Ms. Hashimoto mentioned throughout a information convention final week.

However the celebration on Thursday was subdued, and the relay was being carried out underneath a lot of restrictions. Conventional 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 saved burning in Japan over the past 12 months of pandemic. As just a few celebrities took to the stage to ship transient speeches forward of the torch’s departure, considered one 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 girls’s soccer staff, carried the torch for the primary few hundred yards of the relay as a small group of reporters and dignitaries appeared on.

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

Many in Japan, nonetheless, stay frightened that the virus has but to run its course, and that the Video games and surrounding occasions threat worsening the nation’s comparatively delicate expertise of the pandemic. Reported coronavirus deaths stay underneath 9,000, however the nation remains to be recording over 1,000 circumstances every day, and well being specialists warn {that a} fourth wave is in sight.

The authorities ended an almost three-month state of emergency within the Tokyo area on Sunday. In a ballot by the Asahi newspaper, over 50 % of respondents mentioned 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 Video 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 within the Tohoku area of Japan, which additionally contains Fukushima Prefecture, and an area state of emergency was declared final week.

Tatsuya Maruyama, the governor of Shimane Prefecture, in western Japan, mentioned early final month that it was “tough to cooperate” with the torch relay and the Tokyo Video games due to the coronavirus scenario.

He’s not the one one cautious in regards to the occasions. Along with the movie star withdrawals, Mr. Suga himself is not going to attend the relay, saying that he had come to the choice “after comprehensively contemplating parliamentary schedules.”

On Thursday morning, Mr. Suga mentioned from Tokyo that “this can be a precious alternative to make the general public notice that the Olympics and Paralympic Video games are quick approaching.”

A number of of the high-profile pullouts occurred simply earlier than the beginning of the relay. Norio Sasaki, the coach who led the nationwide girls’s soccer staff to the World Cup victory in 2011, mentioned on Wednesday that the captain of that staff, 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 issues in regards to the coronavirus. She has been one of many few high-profile contributors to obviously cite the pandemic as the explanation for withdrawing.

“I didn’t withdraw to affect society’s opinions on the Video games, however as a result of I selected to withdraw, I assumed that folks can be eager to know why,” she mentioned in an interview on Tuesday, including, “I needed to inform the reality.”

On Thursday morning, when the torch left J-Village — a reconstructed soccer stadium that served as a base for nuclear restoration operations in the course of the Fukushima catastrophe — it was underneath 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 half-hour earlier than the beginning time, and spectators can attend the relay solely of their house prefectures.

No cheering or shouting is allowed, and followers should provide “assist with applause or utilizing distributed items.” The relay will likely be live-streamed by NHK, Japan’s public broadcaster.

Regardless of the precautions, some individuals in Fukushima mentioned they have been nonetheless frightened. Shuhei Ohno, 34, a chef in Koriyama, mentioned he feared that the torch relay might “increase the an infection threat” nationwide.

“The vaccine hasn’t unfold broadly sufficient in Japan but, so how can there already be plans to host the Olympics?” he mentioned.

Nonetheless, 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 neighborhood that raised her, in addition to to convey hope after a 12 months suffering from an increase in suicides, financial hardship and intense sacrifices by well being care employees.

Though the authorities appear decided to carry the Video games, Ms. Noguchi acknowledged that if the coronavirus scenario worsened severely between now and July, it might nonetheless pressure a postponement or cancellation.

“A minimum of in that case, I used to be nonetheless in a position to run within the torch relay,” she mentioned.

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