The Japanese kicked off the Olympic torch relay on Thursday, marking the four-month countdown to the postponed 2020 summer Games in Tokyo. The ceremony was held without the usual cheer and pomp at Fukushima, the city which was hit hard by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
"For the past year, as the entire world underwent a difficult period, the Olympic flame was kept alive quietly but powerfully," Tokyo 2020 president Seiko Hashimoto said at the opening ceremony, Reuters reported.
"The small flame did not lose hope, and just like the cherry blossom buds that are ready to bloom, it was waiting for this day," he added.
There was continued uncertainty over the future of the Games after it was postponed last year owing to the coronavirus pandemic. Though Japan fared better than most countries, recording only 9,000 deaths, Tokyo is not free of the scourge as yet. The city reported 420 cases on Wednesday, the highest single-day figure this month, the agency reported.
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About 10,000 runners will take part in the four-month relay, which will go through all Japan's 47 prefectures.
The relay, culminating with the Olympic opening ceremony on July 23, has been hit by several high-profile runner cancellations as celebrities and top-level athletes have pulled out, citing late notice and worries over the pandemic.
The brief, solemn opening ceremony was held at J-Village in Fukushima, a sports complex converted into a staging ground for workers decommissioning the crippled nuclear power plant.
"For the torch relay viewing, please ensure you are wearing a mask, keep proper distance, don't stand close to each other and support with things like clapping, instead of using a loud voice," an announcer said.
Low-key events featuring Fukushima residents in drum and dance performances were followed by a children's choir before the Olympic flame, flown in from Greece last year and kept alight under 24-hour guard, was used to ignite the torch.
Members of the Japanese women's soccer team were the first to run with the flame, wearing white uniforms decorated with red.
The number of spectators, some waving Olympic flags or carp-shaped cloth streamers, increased throughout the day, ranging from nursery school children in colourful caps to elderly people clapping in front of flowering spring trees.
Most stood far apart from each other on the side of the road and wore masks.
Some runners grinned and posed as they handed off the torch, waving, while others set off to the beat of traditional Japanese drums. One man pushed himself in a wheelchair, the torch mounted in a bracket.
Though Games organisers in Tokyo and Lausanne insist the Olympics will go ahead, doctors and nurses have complained about the strain on hospitals and experts warn about the spread of virus variants.
Japan's Vaccine Drive
Japan was the last of the Group of Seven industrialised nations to launch a vaccine drive. Only 700,000 people have been inoculated so far, mostly medical workers.
After the torch relay finished for the day, dozens of protesters gathered in downtown Tokyo, holding placards calling on Japan to scrap the event.
Toshio Miyazaki, 60, who organised the anti-Olympics rally, said he was worried about the spread of the virus due to visiting athletes and officials.
"It's meaningless to hold the Olympics that no one supports," said Miyazaki, who works for Tokyo's metropolitan government.
Japan has spent nearly $300 billion to revive the Fukushima region, but many locals are apprehensive about the Games, as some areas remain off-limits, worries about radiation linger and many have settled elsewhere. Decommissioning of the stricken plant will take up to a century.