Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said on Monday that he had never “put the Olympics first”, as an opinion poll showed nearly 60 percent of Japanese want the Olympics cancelled less than three months before they are due to begin.
Japan has extended a state of emergency in Tokyo until the end of May and is struggling to contain a surge in COVID-19 cases, raising further questions about whether the Games should take place. Its vaccination rate is the lowest among wealthy nations.
International Olympic officials, Tokyo planners and Suga himself have insisted the $15.4bn event will go forward in “a safe and secure” way. Overseas spectators have been banned and planners issued an elaborate playbook of rules last month aimed at preventing coronavirus infections.
But a public opinion survey, conducted between May 7 and 9 by the Yomiuri Shimbun daily, showed 59 percent wanted the Games cancelled compared with only 39 percent who said they should proceed. There was no option to postpone the event, which has already been delayed by a year.
Another poll conducted during the weekend by TBS News found 65 percent wanted the Games cancelled or postponed again, with 37 percent voting to scrap the event altogether and 28 percent calling for another delay.
More than 300,000 people have signed a petition to cancel the Games in roughly five days since it was launched.
About 100 “anti-Olympic” protesters marched around Tokyo’s National Stadium on Sunday to show their opposition to the event as a test event took place inside.
The demonstrators vented their anger at Tokyo organisers and the IOC for pushing ahead with the games even as COVID-19 cases increase.
“I was surprised that the number of people who are against the Olympics have increased this much,” Kumiko Suto, a publishing company employee, told The Associated Press. “But I guess that reflects how bad the situation of the coronavirus is. And yet the Olympics is unstoppable. I’m just speechless.”
Asked in a parliamentary committee meeting whether the Games would continue even if coronavirus cases continued to spike, Suga replied: “I’ve never put Olympics first.”
“My priority has been to protect the lives and health of the Japanese population. We must first prevent the spread of the virus,” he added
He repeated that the IOC has the final say on the fate of the Games and that the government’s role is to take steps so the event can be held safely.
The TBS survey found that Suga’s public approval rate was at 40 percent, close to record lows marked earlier this year.
Top Olympic official John Coates said on Saturday that while Japanese sentiment about the Games “was a concern” he could foresee no scenario under which the sporting extravaganza would not go ahead.
But on Sunday, Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka said that even though she has waited her whole life to take part in the Olympics, the risks of holding the Tokyo Games should be carefully discussed.
The Games are set to open on July 23 and continue until August 8.