The new president of the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee has begun holding weekly news conferences hoping to win over a doubting Japanese public with the postponed games opening in just under five months.
Hashimoto Seiko is trying to assure everyone that the Olympics will be safe and secure, a phrase she repeated a dozen times on March 5 in her inaugural news conference.
Polls show about 80 percent of Japanese think the games should be postponed again or canceled amid the pandemic.
“The situation around coronavirus doesn’t go easy on us,” Hashimoto said. “I understand there are a lot of people in Tokyo and in Japan who have concerns about the games in Tokyo this summer. I’d like to share my thoughts and alleviate some of those concerns.”
She also needs to ease fears about the torch relay, which is set to begin on March 25 from the northeastern prefecture of Fukushima. The relay involves 10,000 runners and goes to every corner of Japan.
The Olympics open on July 23, followed by the Paralympics on August 24. They will include 11,000 Olympians, 4,400 Paralympic athletes, and tens of thousands of judges, officials, sponsors, volunteers, VIPs, media, and broadcasters.
“People need to start to build confidence in the safety of the games,” Hashimoto said. “It will be very difficult without that.”
Hashimoto said she has appointed CEO Muto Toshiro to head the relay effort. The Olympics were postponed a year ago just as the torch relay opened. If the relay falters with crowding, cheering spectators, and unprepared local authorities, the Olympics could go down with it.
Early conjecture hinted at calling off the relay, but it is heavily sponsored by Coca-Cola and Toyota. Sponsors and the sale of broadcast rights account for 91 percent of the International Olympic Committee’s income.
Hashimoto has promised to make a decision on admitting fans from abroad by March 25, or at least by the end of the month. The Mainichi newspaper reported this week, citing an unnamed government source, that foreign fans will not be allowed. IOC President Thomas Bach also hinted at the decision going that way.
Hashimoto has not confirmed it.
“Welcoming everyone globally and having a full audience is something we wish we could do,” she said. “But healthcare conditions in Japan have to be well prepared. Otherwise, some people may come as spectators and cause harm.”
Adding to concerns about the pandemic in Japan, Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide announced on March 5 that his government is extending a state of emergency in the Tokyo region for another two weeks because its medical systems are still strained by COVID-19 patients.
At a government coronavirus taskforce meeting Friday night, Suga said the emergency will be extended through March 21 for Tokyo and three neighboring prefectures, where the measure was to end March 7.
He said medical systems in the region were still burdened with COVID-19 patients and more hospital beds have to be freed. Infections have slowed significantly, but not enough, and the pace of decline has stalled, he said. “There is a strong concern of a rebound,” he said.
Suga declared a month-long emergency on January 7 for Tokyo, Kanagawa, Saitama, and Chiba that was later extended through March 7. An emergency that applied to other urban prefectures was lifted last week, underscoring the government’s eagerness to allow businesses to return to normal as soon as possible.
The state of emergency, which is a non-binding request, centers around asking restaurants, bars, and other businesses to voluntarily close at 8 p.m. Japan has never had a mandatory lockdown but has managed to keep infections relatively low with social distancing and other voluntary measures.
Controlling the spread of the virus, along with progress in vaccinations, are considered key for Tokyo’s hosting of the Summer Olympics.
Suga apologized for not being able to end the state of emergency as promised.
Experts are divided over whether two weeks would be enough to get infections under control, as concerns are running high about the upcoming spring cherry blossom season, when many people come out and party.
Suga asked people to avoid big graduation parties and farewell and welcome events that peak in the coming weeks, with Japan’s business and school year ending in March.
Tokyo Governor Koike Yuriko and the heads of neighboring prefectures had raised concerns that a lifting of the emergency could trigger a quick rebound in infections.
Dr. Omi Shigeru, a former World Health Organization regional director and head of the government COVID-19 taskforce, said on March 5 that the Tokyo region is prone to a resurgence and urged authorities to set up “a strong system” to prevent one.
Omi also cautioned against overestimating the impact of the vaccine, especially in a country with high vaccine skepticism. He said a future resurgence of infections is likely even when 60-70 percent of the population has been vaccinated.
Daily new cases in Tokyo have decreased significantly after peaking at about 2,000 in early January, but the decline has slowed recently. Tokyo on March 5 reported 301 new cases, up from 278 the day before, raising its total to 112,925. Nationwide, Japan reported more than 436,000 cases and about 8,000 deaths as of March 4.
By Stephen Wade and Mari Yamaguchi for the Associated Press in Tokyo, Japan.