NAGANO – Olympic torch bearers dashed past sporadic protests Saturday as heavy security shielded the Japanese leg of the world relay by lining streets with thousands of riot police and closely monitoring the event with helicopters.
Police guards in track suits surrounded the torch bearers while another 100 uniformed riot police trotted alongside six patrol cars and two motorcycles. The convoy was backed up by thousands of other police.
Japanese officials said the high-profile security was unavoidable, but it dissipated any festive mood in Nagano, which hosted the 1998 Winter Games.
Four people were injured by confrontations and protests at the event, which attracted hundreds of protestors.
Five men — four Japanese and a pro-Tibetan resident of Taiwan — were arrested separately during the relay. Three were apprehended after trying to charge the torch, while the fourth threw eggs and the fifth hurled tomatoes at the flame.
All were quickly pounced on by the police, police official Akiko Fuseya said.
NHK reported that a smoke-emitting tube was thrown at the relay but didn’t affect it.
Yelling “Free Tibet,” marchers crowded streets near the route, and various confrontations broke out, fire officials said.
Hundreds of protesters and supporters were seen gathered near Zenkoji Temple, holding the flags of both Tibet and China. The Buddhist temple had been designated as the original starting point before it pulled out in protest.
One of the Japanese spectators told a Chinese man who was raising the Chinese flag, “China’s human rights violations are derived from your country’s imperialism.”
The Chinese man yelled back: “Imperialism and colonialism are Japan’s well known features,” before the two engaged in a heated verbal exchange.
He Huiqun, a 33-year-old Chinese student at a Japanese university, said he backed his country’s stance on Tibet.
“Today we came here in 16 vehicles with friends and students to back the torch relay,” he said. “Tibet is part of China.”
Several hundred more, divided into pro-China and pro-Tibet factions, rallied in front of JR Nagano Station.
“I came from Tokyo to show my support for Tibet,” said Toru Watanabe. “I’m glad it was peaceful, but it was impossible to see the torch.”
Groups including Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders planned to protest peacefully throughout the day.
“I hope there won’t be any more problems. The Olympics are supposed to be about international unity,” said Gao Rui, who came with his family, waving red Chinese flags.
The new starting point for the relay, a parking lot chosen at the last minute to replace the temple, was closed to the public, as were all rest stops along the way.
Four hours later, the torch arrived at the Wakasato Park, the terminus of the Japanese leg, much as it had traversed the mountain resort — amid a red, blue and yellow sea of both Chinese supporters and pro-Tibet demonstrators.
The last runner, gold-medalist Mizuki Noguchi, who won the marathon at the Athens Olympics, found more than 1,000 protesters and supporters waving Tibetan or Chinese flags when she reached the goal line in pouring rain.
“I’m so glad that I could safely light the caldron,” Noguchi said. “I ran as I wished for the success of the Beijing Olympics and peace.”
The relay, making its 16th international stop, has been disrupted by protests or conducted under extremely heavy security at several sites since leaving Greece.
After arriving in Nagano by bus early Friday, the flame was spirited away to a hotel and put under heavy security.
Japan took severe measures to ensure its 18.7-km relay went smoothly, mobilizing about 3,000 riot police.
The Olympic flame later departed for Tokyo by shinkansen and was to leave Japan from Haneda airport at 11:30 p.m. for Seoul.
The international route ends next week, after stops in South Korea on Sunday, North Korea on Monday and Vietnam on Tuesday. The flame arrives on Chinese soil on Wednesday in Hong Kong, for a long journey around the host country before the games officially start on Aug. 8.
The protests were largely in response to China’s bloody crackdown last month on protesters in Tibet, which it has governed since the 1950s, and to concerns over human rights issues in China. Between 20 and 80 people were reportedly killed in the crackdown. Hundreds more were arrested.
Coinciding with the start of the relay, which began under a light rain, a prayer vigil was held at Zenkoji Temple.
About 30 Tibetans throughout Japan started by chanting Buddhist sutras in the Tibetan language, and then Japanese monks from Zenkoji Temple followed by reciting the “Hannyashinkyo” sutra.
Then the names of the people who died in the riot were read out in the ceremony.
Akemi Takahashi, public affair official of the Japan chapter of the Students for a Free Tibet which organized the vigil, said, “I hope dialogue between Dalai Lama and the Chinese government will happen before the opening of the Olympics,” after the ceremony.
Chinese news media reported Friday that Chinese officials had agreed to meet a representative of Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, in the near future.
But a 30-year-old Tibetan from Tokyo who goes by the name Kunga, said: “I don’t believe that is happening as there would’ve been several reports regarding the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government talking, but it never happened.”