TOKYO – Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said on Monday that he has never “put the Olympics first”, the same day an opinion poll showed nearly 60% of people in Japan want the Olympics cancelled less than three months before they begin.
Japan has extended a state of emergency in Tokyo until the end of May and is struggling to contain a surge in COVID-19 cases, raising further questions about whether the Games should go on. Its vaccination rate is the lowest among wealthy nations.
International Olympic officials, Tokyo planners and Suga himself have insisted the Games will go on in “a safe and secure” way. Foreign spectators have been barred and planners issued an elaborate playbook of rules last month aimed at preventing coronavirus infections.
But a public opinion survey, conducted from May 7-9 by the Yomiuri Shimbun daily, showed 59% wanted the Games cancelled as opposed to 39% who said they should be held. “Postponement” was not offered as an option.
Another poll conducted at the weekend by TBS News found 65% wanted the Games cancelled or postponed again, with 37% voting to scrap the event altogether and 28% calling for another delay. More than 300,000 people have signed a petition to cancel the Games in roughly five days since it was launched.
Asked in a parliamentary committee meeting whether the Games will continue even if COVID-19 infections spike, Suga replied: “I’ve never put Olympics first”.
“My priority has been to protect the lives and health of the Japanese population. We must first prevent the spread of the virus,” he added.
He repeated that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has the final say on the fate of the Games and that the government’s role is to take steps so they can be held safely. Several test events with foreign athletes have been successfully held, most recently on Sunday.
Arrangements are being made for IOC head Thomas Bach, who had been widely expected to visit Japan in mid-May, to visit in June, with the lifting the state of emergency a prerequisite, media reports said.
Tokyo 2020 president Seiko Hashimoto said last week that it would be “difficult” for Bach to visit in the middle of a state of emergency.
An official in western Okayama prefecture said on Monday they were considering keeping the Olympic torch relay off public roads when it passes through next week. Though other prefectures have taken similar steps, they were under states of emergency or other restrictions at the time.
Top Olympic official John Coates said on Saturday that while Japanese sentiment about the Games “was a concern” he could foresee no scenario under which the sporting extravaganza would not go ahead.
But on Sunday, Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka said that even though she has waited her whole life to take part in the Olympics, the risks of holding the Tokyo Games should be carefully discussed.
The Games are set to open on July 23 and run until Aug 8.