While Shigeru Omi may invite comparisons to leading U.S. doctor Anthony Fauci, Japan’s top COVID-19 adviser had shown little of his American counterpart’s flair for challenging politicians. That is, until he started suggesting banning spectators from the Tokyo Olympics.

Omi, the government’s top adviser on COVID-19, is a mild-mannered 72-year-old public health expert often seen by Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s side. But his concern over plans reported in the media to allow domestic spectators seems to have prompted him to question the government’s push to have fans attend Olympic events.

Omi appeared to open a gap with Suga, who has pressed ahead with holding the Olympics as planned, when he told a parliamentary committee on June 2 that “it’s not normal” to be staging the global sports spectacle in the middle of a pandemic. The organizers needed to make a stronger case for holding the event in order to gain people’s necessary cooperation, he said.

“Why on earth are we doing this in the current circumstances?” Omi said. “The purpose hasn’t quite been made clear.”

Such public questioning of the official position is unusual in the nation’s hierarchical political culture. Domestic media have reported that some spectators are likely to be allowed at venues, although the decision may not be made public until after a state of emergency in Tokyo that is set to end on Sunday.

Organizers for the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics plan to halt sales of more tickets to the events, Kyodo News reported Thursday.

Former internal affairs minister Heizo Takenaka told a TV talk show that Omi had exceeded his authority with the remarks. Now Omi and other experts are set to release a proposal on the Olympics, which health minister Norihisa Tamura has already indicated he won’t be treating as official advice.

Omi told reporters Wednesday the general outline of his report had been decided, declining to elaborate before its release. NHK said Thursday that the report says holding the games without fans would be the least risky option.

“Japan doesn’t have a system where members of the establishment air their own independent views,” said Tsuneo Watanabe, a senior research fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation in Tokyo. “It doesn’t go as far as North Korea or China, but everyone’s very cautious. The government doesn’t choose people who will express different opinions.”

The government is backing a 10,000-person limit on public events, which could be applied to the Olympics. A decision on spectators was expected later this month, top government spokesman Katsunobu Kato said Wednesday.

Shigeru Omi, the top COVID-19 adviser to the government, speaks alongside Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga at the Prime Minister's Office in May. | POOL / VIA KYODO
Shigeru Omi, the top COVID-19 adviser to the government, speaks alongside Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga at the Prime Minister’s Office in May. | POOL / VIA KYODO

Like Fauci, the White House adviser and infectious diseases expect, Omi has become a well-known public figure since the start of the pandemic. His views on the games echo those of many voters.

In a survey by NHK published this week, 29% of respondents said the Olympics should be held without spectators and 31% said it should be canceled. About 32% said it should be held with limited numbers of spectators.

Omi has said the greatest danger lay not within the athletes’ bubble, but among the fans who would travel to Tokyo at a time of year when many Japanese traditionally visit extended family across the country, creating more opportunities for the virus to spread. Organizers announced in March that overseas spectators wouldn’t be allowed.

Suga has repeatedly said the Olympics can be held safely, despite waves of virus infections and a vaccine rollout that lags other wealthy nations. He faces a party leadership vote in September and if there are major problems with the Olympics under his watch, he could join a long list of short-serving prime ministers.

At the Group of Seven leaders meeting in the U.K. over the weekend, Suga’s debut at a multilateral in-person summit, the prime minister won the support of the other leaders for holding the Olympics.

A rift with the administration is an unfamiliar situation for Omi, who was previously more likely to be criticized for tailoring his opinions to suit the government.

In an article on his alma mater’s website he says he never felt like taking part in the left-wing student demonstrations that were raging in Tokyo when he entered the elite Keio University in the 1960s.

Dropping out of a law course in favor of a medical degree at the then-newly formed Jichi Medical University, Omi went on to earn a doctorate on the Hepatitis B virus and later landed the job of World Health Organization director for the Western Pacific. A fluent English speaker, he was so plugged into the political system that in 2006 he was nominated by the government to be director-general of the WHO.

The pandemic may be prompting him to set aside his diplomatic skills.

“If they hold (the games), I want the Olympic and Paralympic Organizing Committee to reduce it in scale as far as possible, and strengthen the management system as much as they can,” Omi told lawmakers June 2.

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