• Kyodo, AFP-Jiji

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Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on Thursday began a series of meetings, set to continue over the coming days, with foreign VIPs attending the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics, among them U.S. first lady Jill Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron.

The leaders of about 15 countries and international organizations are among 950 dignitaries, sponsors and other people related to the Games who will be present at the 68,000-seat National Stadium.

Under a COVID-19 state of emergency, spectators will be absent from the traditional extravaganza, usually a time of celebration for the host nation. This time around, after a year's pandemic delay, the Japanese public is largely locked out and distrustful of the Games.

The ceremony has been pared back to prevent crowding, with the parade of nations, a centerpiece of the show featuring smiling and waving athletes, dramatically reduced.

Suga is receiving the foreign dignitaries at Akasaka Palace, a neo-Baroque state guest house originally built as the crown prince's residence in 1909.

The prime minister and his wife Mariko had dinner on Thursday evening with U.S. President Joe Biden's wife, who is leading the American Olympic delegation.

An educator who continues to work as a writing professor at a community college, Jill Biden is visiting Japan for the first time since her husband took office in January. She is scheduled to meet Emperor Naruhito along with other guests at the Imperial Palace on Friday.

Suga is set to meet with Macron on Saturday, when the French president is expected to raise the issue of child abductions by separated parents.

Vincent Fichot, a 39-year-old French national who says his Japanese wife has abducted his two children, has made headlines for going on a hunger strike near the National Stadium in a bid to raise awareness of the issue.

Suga began the three-day marathon of meetings on Thursday with South Sudanese Vice President Rebecca Nyandeng De Mabior, who welcomed the decision to go ahead with the Tokyo Olympics despite difficulties posed by COVID-19, according to the Foreign Ministry.

Suga also held separate talks with U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi, World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and Mongolian Prime Minister Luvsannamsrai Oyun-Erdene.

Tedros welcomed the decision to go ahead with the Tokyo Olympics in the face of challenges posed by COVID-19 and praised Japan's efforts to contain infections, according to the Foreign Ministry.

Suga vowed to continue working toward equitable access to vaccines, while stressing the need for a further investigation into the origin of the coronavirus, the ministry said.

Also Thursday, Emperor Naruhito met with International Olympic Committee chief Thomas Bach at the Imperial Palace.

The emperor told Bach it is not easy to hold the games while taking full measures against COVID-19.

"Under such circumstances, the managing of the games, while at the same time taking all possible measures against COVID-19, is a far from easy task," the emperor said in English.

"I would like to pay tribute to all those who have been involved in the management of the games for their efforts at various venues," he said.

Bach promised the emperor that maximum efforts would be made to prevent risks to the people of Japan.

The meeting was held without drinks or food and social distancing was maintained as part of anti-virus steps.

The emperor, who serves as the honorary patron of the Olympics and Paralympics, is scheduled to attend the opening ceremony on Friday.

The 15 or so world leaders attending the opening ceremony are down from the roughly 40 that attended the same event for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016. During the London Olympics in 2012, leaders from as many as 80 countries and organizations attended the opening ceremony.

A senior Foreign Ministry official said the recent spread of highly contagious variants of the coronavirus led many to cancel their trips.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in said he will not attend after the deputy chief of mission at the Japanese Embassy in Seoul used a sexually explicit phrase to disparage him.

About 70 Cabinet-level officials are also set to visit Japan, though top government spokesman Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato has said the number may not be finalized until the last minute.

In Suga's meeting with Oyun-Erdene, the two agreed that Japan and Mongolia will cooperate in realizing a free and open Indo-Pacific as well as continue to work toward the immediate resolution of North Korea's abductions of Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s, the ministry said.

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