The top government spokesman said Tuesday that the widespread distribution of coronavirus vaccines is not a prerequisite for going ahead with this summer’s Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.
“We are considering comprehensive measures to hold a safe and secure games, even without making vaccines a condition,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato told a news conference.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s administration has remained adamant that the Olympics and Paralympics, postponed last year due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, will be held from late July through early September, despite public skepticism as infections in the country continue to surge.
Around 80% of respondents in a Kyodo News survey conducted this month said the games should be rescheduled again or canceled.
Vaccinations are slated to begin in Japan by late February, starting with medical workers, followed by people aged 65 or older from late March, then people with pre-existing conditions and those caring for the elderly.
Calls for canceling the games are growing as coronavirus cases continue to rise rapidly in many parts of Japan.
In a parliamentary policy speech on Monday, Suga reiterated that the government is committed to holding the Tokyo Games this summer But he has yet to present a roadmap to contain the coronavirus crisis, and an increasing number of people, including members of his ruling Liberal Democratic Party, have started taking a pessimistic view about the games.
A decision, due possibly in spring, on whether to hold the games looks certain to affect the fate of the Suga administration, observers say.
“The Olympics can’t be held without some 6,000 to 7,000 staff from participating countries, on top of athletes,” Yoshiro Mori, president of the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic organizing committee, was quoted as telling a person close to him recently.
“Japan will not be able to secure such a large number of staff workers alone, and it will be difficult,” Mori said.
In his speech Monday, Suga said that the Tokyo Games, which were postponed by one year due to the pandemic, should be held as “proof that humanity has defeated the novel coronavirus.”
But an increasing number of LDP members believe that there will be no choice but to cancel the games.
Many LDP members think that the government will inevitably extend its second coronavirus state of emergency beyond its Feb. 7 expiration date. One senior party official said that the games will not be held if the emergency declaration is extended.
Many coming-of-age ceremonies were canceled due to the coronavirus. The LDP official said that young people would likely be angered, asking “why the Tokyo Games are going to be held after many coming-of-age ceremonies were canceled.”
An LDP faction leader said the Suga administration would take a hit if the games are canceled.
“The prime minister’s political responsibility would be sought, as he has been insisting on holding the games as a proof of victory over the coronavirus,” the faction leader said.
A source close to Suga said the decision on the games’ fate would be “up to the United States.” The games “would have no sponsors if U.S. athletes are absent,” the source added.
“We need to do the best we can to prepare for the games at this moment, but it could go either way,” administrative reform minister Taro Kono was quoted as saying recently.
Opinion polls in Japan showing the proportion of respondents in favor of the Tokyo Games’ cancellation or postponement exceeding that of those calling for the event to go ahead have flummoxed officials.
“I wonder why many people have a low expectation of holding the games,” a senior government official said.
At a news conference on Jan. 7, Suga said Japan will start coronavirus vaccinations in late February. The atmosphere will change once thorough measures against the virus are taken, he said, showing his expectation that vaccinations could be a game changer.
But vaccination programs have only just started in Europe and the United States.
Challenges include vaccine supplies to emerging economies, what to do about Olympic and Paralympic athletes refusing vaccinations and risks associated with adverse effects from vaccines.
In addition, the effectiveness of vaccines against variants of the coronavirus remains unknown.
Since September, the Japanese government, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and the organizing committee have been discussing ways to prevent athletes and others from being exposed to the virus during arrival in Japan and at games venues.
Suga aims to hold the games with spectators to give a boost to the Japanese economy. He had led efforts to relax entry restrictions to this goal.
But he was forced to reverse course after coronavirus new variants were confirmed in Japan. The government halted a program allowing foreign nationals, chiefly business people, from some economies to enter Japan.
The government plans to make a decision in the spring on whether to allow spectators at the Tokyo Games.
Last year, the one-year postponement of the games was decided just before the torch relay was set to begin.
This time, the focal point is whether the government is able to lift the state of emergency before the start of the torch relay, set for March 25 in Fukushima Prefecture.
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