The prospect of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga conducting active diplomacy with foreign leaders during the Tokyo Olympics remains uncertain, was struggling to set visits with foreign leaders under a fresh COVID-19 state of emergency that will run for the duration of the games.
The United States and China have decided not to send their leaders to the Olympics, which will open July 23 and end Aug. 8. North Korea, meanwhile, pulled its whole team of athletes from the games earlier in the year.
South Korea is coordinating a visit by President Moon Jae-in timed for the opening ceremony. But his bid to repair soured ties with Japan has met with reluctance from Suga due to Moon's handling of wartime issues.
Initially, Japan saw the Olympics and Paralympics as opportunities to spur foreign diplomacy as it expected to receive leaders and senior officials as guests from more than 100 countries and regions before the coronavirus spread across the world, according to government officials.
However, French president Emmanuel Macron is the sole major world leader so far to announce his attendance at the opening ceremony — due at least in part of France hosting the 2024 games.
U.S. first lady Jill Biden is considering the feasibility of her attending the opening ceremony, given that all spectators will be banned from games venues in the capital and neighboring prefectures due to the pandemic.
In addition, Suga's government put Tokyo under its fourth COVID-19 state of emergency from Monday through Aug. 22 in an effort to curb a resurgence in infections and quell concerns that the games may trigger a further surge in cases.
Much attention has been focused on whether Moon will actually travel to Japan as relations between Tokyo and Seoul have sunk to the lowest level in decades over issues related to Japan's 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.
The two neighbors have not held a summit meeting since December 2019, after the South Korean Supreme Court ruled a year earlier that Japanese companies should compensate South Korean wartime laborers.
Relations further deteriorated in January this year when the Seoul Central District Court ordered the Japanese government to pay damages to a group of former "comfort women" over their treatment at military brothels during World War II, the first such ruling in South Korea.
Japan takes the position that a 1965 bilateral agreement between the two neighbors settled all claims related to its colonial rule of the peninsula.
Even if the two leaders meet, there is no guarantee it will lead to a significant improvement in soured ties.
Japan has reiterated that Suga will meet with Moon if he visits Japan for the Olympics, but Tokyo appears uninterested at the moment in holding anything more than ceremonial talks.
"It's natural to treat (him) in a polite manner in light of diplomatic protocols," Suga said at a news conference last week.
Moon is calling for a full-scale summit meeting to discuss a range of issues between the two countries, which also include Japan's decision to release treated radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean from the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
China, meanwhile, is considering sending Sun Chunlan, a vice premier in charge of sports policy, to the July 23 opening ceremony. Strained bilateral ties over history and territory issues as well as concerns about the virus situation in Japan are expected to prevent President Xi Jinping from attending.
Japanese Foreign Ministry officials say the impact of the fresh virus emergency on the scheduling of foreign leaders' visits is likely to be limited.
But one official said there is less talk about diplomatic events than initially anticipated, mainly because of the infection situations both in and outside Japan.
According to the ministry, leaders from about 80 countries and regions attended the 2012 London Olympics' opening ceremony, while some 40 attended the ceremony at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games.
Ministry officials said the list of top guests for the curtain raiser will not be finalized until just before the event.
"We expect a similar degree of attendance by leaders as at the 2016 Olympics," an official said.
Although Olympic organizers have decided to stage the events without spectators at most venues in the capital and other cities as a counter-infection measure, seats are expected to be arranged for diplomatic guests at the opening ceremony.
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