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Torch Relay Kicks Off For Troubled Tokyo Olympic Games

Azusa Iwashimizu (right) and other members of Japan women's national football team run as torchbearers in the first leg of the torch relay for Tokyo Olympics on Thursday in Fukushima prefecture, Japan.
Azusa Iwashimizu (right) and other members of Japan women's national football team run as torchbearers in the first leg of the torch relay for Tokyo Olympics on Thursday in Fukushima prefecture, Japan.

Athletes holding the Olympic torch set off on a relay run Thursday morning in Japan's northeast, showing the organizers' determination to proceed with the Summer Games, despite widespread public skepticism.

The relay is set to crisscross across Japan and arrive at the opening ceremony in Tokyo on July 23.

The runners will deliver not only the torch, but also Tokyo's political message that Japan has recovered from a 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown, and that mankind has vanquished the COVID-19 pandemic.

Critics say both of these claims are premature.

Dressed in white track suits, members of Japan's 2011 women's World Cup-winning soccer team set out at a jog from a soccer training complex in Fukushima, the area hit by the 2011 triple disaster.

They carried a torch made of aluminum, recycled from prefab housing built for the calamity's survivors.

Each of the relay's 10,000 runners will carry the torch 200 meters — about 220 yards — on a course traversing all of Japan's 47 prefectures.

Some runners withdrew ahead of the event to protest against former Games organizing chief Yoshiro Mori, who resigned after making sexist remarks.

"The flame will embark on a 121-day journey and will carry the hopes of the Japanese people and wishes for peace from people around the world," Mori's replacement and former Olympian Seiko Hashimoto said, addressing a ceremony.

Aerobatics pilot Yoshihide Muroya lights the cauldron during the Tokyo Olympic Games torch relay on Thursday in Minamisoma, Fukushima, Japan.
Takashi Aoyama / Getty Images
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Aerobatics pilot Yoshihide Muroya lights the cauldron during the Tokyo Olympic Games torch relay on Thursday in Minamisoma, Fukushima, Japan.

Spectators of the relay are urged to wear masks and clap, but not cheer. The run may be diverted or halted if the event becomes too crowded.

"This is a great opportunity for Japan to get a real sense that the Olympics and Paralympics are nearing," Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga told reporters in Tokyo.

The relay does make the cancellation of the games — postponed from last year — appear less likely. But it's not clear how much public enthusiasm it can generate.

A Kyodo news poll over the weekend found that less than a quarter of those surveyed thought the games should go ahead, while 40% thought they should be canceled.

Reactions in Fukushima ran the gamut from enthusiasm to outrage.

"I hope that the Olympics will be held brilliantly, and successfully," says Shinya Miura, 46, who watched the relay on TV. "However, COVID may not allow that."

"I know everybody in Fukushima is not feeling the same way," adds Miura, who manages a shop selling local products in Date city, inland from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

"Here in Date, we suffered radiation damage. On the coast, people were killed by the tsunami, or could not go back home due to high radiation," he explains.

"For those people, 'recovery' is a long way off," he says. "Even so, I'd like to share the fact that recovery is happening, step by step."

People demonstrate as they hold slogans against the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games planned for this summer, during a protest in Tokyo on Thursday, the first day of the Olympic torch relay. (Photo by Behrouz MEHRI / AFP) (Photo by BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP via Getty Images)
Behrouz Mehri / AFP via Getty Images
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People demonstrate as they hold slogans against the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games planned for this summer, during a protest in Tokyo on Thursday, the first day of the Olympic torch relay.

Others were less upbeat, and criticized the relay's spectacle as a sham.

"Our movement's slogan is 'this is not the time for the Olympics,'" says editor and activist Miho Goda, based in Koriyama City.

"The government says 'Fukushima has recovered,' by showing streets and buildings along the relay route," she says. "But just a few blocks away, you will see debris, abandoned and demolished houses, some not even decontaminated."

Goda notes that with their town still a shambles, few Koriyama residents who fled the disaster are willing to return. The crippled Fukushima nuclear plant will take decades to decommission. Large swathes of contaminated land remain uninhabitable.

"The money spent on the Olympics could easily have helped these families rebuild lives elsewhere," comments Alexis Dudden, a history professor and Japan specialist at the University of Connecticut.

Fukushima residents are not the only ones, she says, being sacrificed for commercial and geopolitical interests.

"What happens if a great athlete actually accidentally contracts COVID and dies?" she asks. One reason Japan is loath to give up hosting the games is the fear that they might "fall behind or lose to China hosting the Winter Olympics in February, 2022. That is not a reason to sacrifice athlete's health."

Japan has lifted a coronavirus state of emergency in all of its prefectures, and its roughly 462,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and nearly 9,000 deaths are comparatively low by international standards. But medical experts warn that the pandemic is far from under control, and that a fourth wave of infections may be imminent. The country has been slow to vaccinate residents.

This is of course not the first time, Dudden points out, that Japan has used the Olympics to construct a narrative of national rebirth.

The 1964 Tokyo Olympics were intended to demonstrate that Japan had arisen, peaceful and prosperous, from the ashes of its World War II defeat.

"This was an effort to reintegrate Japan to the world and it was an enormous success," she says.

This year, overseas spectators will be barred from entering Japan, and it remains to be seen how many domestic spectators will be allowed to watch. This summer's Games, she argues, are therefore "the antithesis of what Japan brilliantly accomplished in 1964."

Chie Kobayashi contributed to this report in Tokyo.

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