Japan expands coronavirus emergency as 350,000 sign 'Cancel Olympics' petition

Kyoko HASEGAWA / Sara HUSSEIN, Agence France-Presse

Posted at May 14 2021 06:47 PM

Japan expanded a coronavirus state of emergency Friday, just 10 weeks before the Olympics, as campaigners submitted a petition with more than 350,000 signatures calling for the Games to be scrapped.

With Tokyo and other areas already under emergency orders until the end of May, three more regions -- including northern Hokkaido, which will host the Olympic marathon -- now join them.

"Today, we decided to add Hokkaido, Okayama and Hiroshima to the area under the state of emergency from May 16 to 31," Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced at a virus taskforce meeting.

In these three regions, "the population is relatively big and the number of new cases is very rapidly increasing", he said.

The widening emergency, aimed at combatting a fourth wave putting Japan's medical system under strain, comes with public opinion firmly opposed to holding the Games this summer, fearing further infections.

Kenji Utsunomiya, a former candidate for Tokyo governor, urged Games organisers to "prioritise life" as he submitted the 351,000-signature petition to city authorities.

"I think the Olympics this time is about whether we prioritise life or a ceremony and event called the Olympics," Utsunomiya said, urging Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike to push for cancellation.

The petition is also being sent to the International Olympic Committee and International Paralympic Committee, as well as local organisers and the national government.

"Holding the Olympics under these circumstances means precious medical resources have to be set aside for the Games," Utsunomiya warned. 

On Thursday, a doctors' union warned it was "impossible" to hold the Games safely during the pandemic, but organisers say virus countermeasures will keep the athletes and Japanese public safe.

Tokyo 2020 chief Seiko Hashimoto told reporters she was aware of the concerns, but insisted strict rules would keep everyone safe.

"We have announced very stringent antivirus measures," she told reporters.

"We have to create a firm bubble and take the necessary restrictions to avoid putting strain on the medical system."

- Japanese 'anger' -
In an interview with AFP, International Paralympic Committee chief Andrew Parsons acknowledged Japanese "anger" over the Games.

But he said strict rules, including daily testing and limited movement for athletes, meant the chance they could infect anyone was "really remote".

"We want to provide this feeling of certainty," Parsons said. 

"Because we see that the anger comes from this concept that it's the Japanese population's safety versus the Games. I believe they can coexist."

In recent days, organisers have held a string of successful test events, including with international athletes, which they say shows their protocols will work.

World Athletics chief Sebastian Coe, who attended test events in Japan last week, said no major sports event so far has been a "super-spreader".

"The world does need to keep moving," Coe wrote in the Daily Mail.

"At a time when football, rugby, tennis and athletics are all back functioning, and crowds slowly returning, it would seem odd to pull stumps on an Olympic Games where the protocols will be tougher than in any other walk of life and many competitors and their support teams will be arriving having been vaccinated."

In Japan, however, one of the country's most prominent businessmen, SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son, said he is "afraid" of the Games going ahead. 

"I am very much afraid of having the Olympics," he told CNBC.

"Not just Japan, but many countries they're having still a big, tough situation, I don't know how they can support sending athletes."

In recent days several top Japanese sports stars, including tennis Grand Slam-winner Naomi Osaka and Masters golf champion Hideki Matsuyama, have expressed reservations about holding the Games during the pandemic.

Utsunomiya said his petition would continue to gather signatures "until the cancellation is announced", and brushed aside the cost of scrapping the massive event.

"People's lives are more important than money," he said.

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© Agence France-Presse

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