The world's oldest person, a Japanese woman aged 118, has given up her spot in the Olympic torch relay due to a surge in Covid-19 cases across the country. Kane Tanaka from Fukuoka in southern Japan had been planning to use a wheelchair to carry the torch when it passes through the city on Tuesday. But her family said in a statement obtained by AFP on Friday that Tanaka would no longer participate because ‘the spread of the coronavirus has not been contained’. The government on Friday extended a virus state of emergency in Tokyo and other areas, and also imposed the restrictions in Fukuoka and one other region. The measure, in place until May 31, restricts commercial activity but is less strict than the blanket lockdowns seen in other countries. ‘The care home where Kane lives has banned visitors to prevent germs from coming inside and has so far ensured the safety of its residents,’ her family said. ‘In light of the current situation, it is truly, truly unfortunate but we have decided to withdraw Kane Tanaka's participation in the torch relay.’ The family said they had been looking forward to the ‘precious and rare’ opportunity and had wanted the public to be inspired by Tanaka -- who they said is in good health. Their statement was issued via Nippon Life Insurance, an Olympic sponsor that had invited Tanaka and her family to participate in the relay. Tanaka was born on January 2, 1903, the same year as American entertainer Bob Hope and British author George Orwell. The Wright brothers had the first successful flight that year, and Marie Curie became the first woman to win a Nobel prize. Japan's Covid-19 outbreak remains much smaller than in many countries, with just over 10,500 deaths. But its vaccine rollout is moving slowly and some areas have seen record cases as more infectious variants drive fresh waves of contagion. Several sections of the torch relay have been moved off-road to prevent people gathering to watch -- and Fukuoka's governor has said he wants it to be pulled from public roads there. Japan's government and Olympics organisers insist the Games will go ahead safely, although polls show most Japanese people support cancellation or another delay.
* Olympics under shadow as cases grow * Vaccination programme lags other countries * Tokyo reports 591 new coronavirus cases Japan's capital will seek to extend until May 31 its state of emergency aimed at curbing coronavirus infections, Governor Yuriko Koike said on Thursday, a move that could spark more questions about its ability to host the Olympics. Japan had hoped a ‘short and powerful’ emergency would contain a fourth wave of infections just under three months before Tokyo is set to host the Olympic Games from July 23. While the measure now running from April 25 until Tuesday has not damped a surge of new infections, continuing it until May 31 leaves a margin of less than two months before the Games, already postponed by a year over the pandemic. ‘Based on the analyses from various angles, my thinking is that we need an extension of the state of emergency,’ Koike said. Tokyo's neighbouring prefectures of Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama will also seek to extend their partial states of emergency until the end of May, the regional governors agreed in a video meeting with Koike. As mutant virus strains become dominant, more younger people are falling victim, fuelling concern that the surge could surpass the third wave that crested in January, Koike said. She urged people to curtail movement as a way to limit the spread. Japan has not suffered as badly from the virus as other nations, but its vaccination campaign is lagging badly, with even many elderly people still waiting for inoculations. Still, Japan and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) insist the Olympics will go on, though foreign spectators have been banned. A decision on the number of Japanese spectators still awaits, but detailed safety rules for the event were unveiled last week. ‘We are now focusing on fighting the invisible enemy that is the virus, so that we can provide a safe and secure environment for all,’ Koike told an earlier online conference. ‘The Tokyo 2020 Games are a highly significant event that serves as a beacon of hope for the world.’ Tokyo added 591 new cases on Thursday. About 10,500 people have died nationwide since the pandemic began. On Wednesday, three sources had told Reuters that officials were leaning toward extending the emergency beyond May 11 in the prefectures of Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and Hyogo, a region that encompasses nearly a quarter of Japan's population. Osaka Governor Hirofumi Yoshimura will also seek an extension from the central government. Osaka recorded 747 new cases on Thursday. ‘I think we cannot help but to ask for an extension,’ Yoshimura told a meeting of experts, adding that the region's medical system was being strained to its limit.
A Japanese coastal town in the western part of the country has drawn ire on social media for using some of the coronavirus relief funds it was given by the government to build a statue of a giant squid in the hopes of boosting tourism. The town of Noto in Ishikawa Prefecture was awarded ¥800mn ($7.31mn) in grants from the central government as part of a programme aimed at boosting local economies amid the pandemic, according to domestic media. From that amount, Noto used ¥25mn to cover part of the cost of building the statue, which is 4m high and is 9m long, domestic media reported. Total construction costs were around ¥30mn, they said. Japan is battling a fourth wave of coronavirus infections and the cabinet approved a $708bn stimulus package in December to help the economy recover from the pandemic-induced slump. Squid is a local delicacy in Noto and building the statue was part of a “long-term strategy” to raise awareness about the town’s fishing industry and increase tourism, a local government official said, according to domestic media. Reuters called Noto’s government but the person who answered was not authorised to speak with the press. Japan’s government buildings were closed yesterday for annual Golden Week holidays. The grants were not specifically earmarked for spending related to treating coronavirus patients, and Ishikawa Prefecture’s infection rate is low compared to other parts of Japan, according to local media. However, some people took to Twitter to question whether those funds should have been used for other purposes. “No matter how you look at it, this is wrong. They have to return that money,” one Twitter user said. Construction of the pink cephalopod began in October 2020, and the finished statue was finally moved to its current home in March of this year, local media reported.
* Summer Olympics less than three months away * State of Emergency has not lowered coronavirus infections * Restrictions on business activity in doubt Japan is considering extending a coronavirus spurred state of emergency in the capital, Tokyo, and other major urban areas, sources said on Wednesday, a move that could cast doubt on the planned Summer Olympics. Officials were leaning toward an extension of the measures in Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and Hyogo prefectures beyond May 11 as the country battles a surge in Covid-19 cases, three sources told Reuters. The government may make an official decision as early as Friday, one of the sources told Reuters. The Yomiuri Newspaper earlier reported that an extension of the state of emergency was likely. Extending the measures, which were imposed on April 25, would likely fan persistent concerns about whether the Tokyo Olympics, scheduled to begin on July 23, can be held as planned. The games have already been delayed once from last year due to the pandemic. The city of Sapporo, on the northern island of Hokkaido, hosted a half-marathon test event on Wednesday. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga will meet with senior government ministers on Wednesday to discuss an extension, the Yomiuri reported without citing sources. The Yomiuri did not detail how long an extension might be. One proposal that has emerged is an extension until the end of the month, according to two of the sources. All three people requested anonymity because they were not authorised to speak with the media. The governor of Osaka Prefecture said an extension of three weeks to a month may be necessary, according to domestic media. Calls by Reuters to Suga's office were not answered. Japan's government buildings and financial markets were closed on Wednesday for annual Golden Week holidays. International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach is expected to visit Japan later this month, but an extension of the state of emergency could prompt renewed calls from the public to cancel the games. Under the state of emergency in Tokyo and other urban areas, the government required restaurants, bars, and karaoke parlours serving alcohol to close. Large department stores and cinemas were also shuttered, while spectators were banned from big sporting events. It was uncertain whether the government will loosen any of the operating restrictions on the services sector, the Yomiuri said.
Diving and volleyball on Saturday became the first Olympic test events to include international athletes since such competitions resumed last month, as both got under way under close supervision in Tokyo. The diving World Cup, also a qualifier for this summer's Games this summer, features more than 200 athletes from 50 countries including powerhouse China. "We're not allowed out of our rooms, where you have to stay... - no outdoor air, no human interaction," said US women's diver Sarah Bacon. "But we've been making it work." With around 15,000 Olympians and Paralympians expected to compete in Japan this summer, organisers are still grappling with how to hold the Games safely during the Covid-19 pandemic. Japanese authorities are determined to protect not only Games participants, but a local population that opinion surveys have shown is largely opposed to the event held this summer due to the presence of the virus. Japan is battling a fourth wave of infections, and the government has declared states of emergency in Tokyo and other areas. During a warm-up before Saturday's men's preliminary event, the announcer scolded divers for gathering too closely, thus violating social distancing standards, around the 3-meter springboard. The event was also punctuated in the morning by an earthquake that shook the cavernous Tokyo Aquatics Centre, a reminder that the Games are taking place in one of the world's most tectonically active regions. Diving athletes and coaches expressed gratitude for the chance to compete but also some frustrations that precautions against contagion denied them the chance to experience the city or have some fresh air. Participants are undergoing Covid-19 testing every morning and have to maintain health information on smartphone apps. Additionally, they are kept in a "bubble," restricting movements to between the hotel and venue. "It would have been nice if they could have rented a bus for the team to do some sightseeing around the city," Patrick Hausding, a silver and bronze medal winner for Germany in two prior Olympics, told reporters from behind a glass window. "To be in Tokyo and not be able to see anything is a real shame." The diving event, originally scheduled for April, was in danger of being cancelled amid reports the International Swimming Federation (FINA) was dissatisfied with the Japanese side's Covid-19 countermeasures. FINA and Tokyo organisers agreed to reschedule it for May 1-6 but the global swim body cancelled an artistic swimming qualifier that was scheduled to be held in Tokyo, and moved a marathon swimming qualifier from Fukuoka in southern Japan to Portugal. In addition, Australia decided to withdraw from the diving due to worries about rising coronavirus cases in Japan. Saturday's volleyball involved a friendly between Japan and China. The Tokyo Olympics, delayed by a year because of the pandemic, are scheduled to open on July 23.
This summer's virus-postponed Olympics could be held behind closed doors, Tokyo 2020 president Seiko Hashimoto told AFP on Friday, pledging to ensure the Games will be safe. Former Olympian Hashimoto said the Games could only be a success if organisers ‘completely protect’ athletes and people in Japan, and that she is hopeful people will ‘be glad’ the event went ahead. Overseas spectators have already been barred from the Games, and this week a decision on domestic fans was delayed until June, with organisers citing a new wave of infections in Japan. ‘There might be a situation where we can't allow any spectators to attend,’ Hashimoto conceded in an interview. ‘The only way that we can call the Games a success is if we completely protect the lives and health of athletes and the people of Japan.’ Most people in Japan back either a further delay of the Games or an outright cancellation, and a recent surge in virus cases has prompted a state of emergency in Tokyo and other parts of the country. With the medical system already under pressure, Olympic organisers have been criticised for requesting volunteer medical staff for the Games. Hashimoto said cutting spectators could ease pressure on the medical system. ‘If the event itself does change, I think it will be with regard to spectators,’ she said. ‘That is one area where we might be able to reduce the anxiety of people who are worried about the medical system.’ - 'Big responsibility' – The Games have never been cancelled outside of wartime and organisers have made it clear that they see no possibility of either further delay or a cancellation. In a bid to win public confidence, they have released rulebooks mandating daily testing for athletes and limiting their movement. But there will be no quarantine required for athletes, and vaccines will not be mandatory. Hashimoto said the rules would continue to be refined, and she felt ‘a big responsibility to show the Games can be held safely’. ‘I want to show that clearly as we work towards the Games,’ she said. When the Games were postponed last year, officials said the delayed event would be held as proof that humanity had triumphed over the virus. But with the pandemic still raging, Hashimoto said the emphasis would be on hope and unity. ‘It will show that the world can come together no matter how hard times are. I think this is a time when we can show that we are united,’ she said. Japan has experienced a smaller virus outbreak than many countries, with just over 10,000 deaths despite avoiding the harsh lockdowns seen elsewhere. But the recent spike in infections has played havoc with Olympic preparations, forcing changes to test events and qualifiers and prompting several regions to take the nationwide torch relay off public roads. - 'Clear the way for women' – Hashimoto said organisers accepted that the situation would continue to change, and that they were running simulations to adapt as necessary. ‘The organising committee is thinking about what needs to be done to make sure the event is not cancelled,’ she said. Olympic officials have defended their determination to continue with the Games despite the pandemic and public opposition, and Hashimoto said she wants ‘lots of people to be glad that we held the Games’. ‘My big goal is to prepare for the Games in a way that makes people feel that way.’ Hashimoto, 56, is former athlete who competed at seven consecutive winter and summer Games in speed skating and as a sprint cyclist. She took over as Tokyo 2020 president in February, after her predecessor was forced to resign over sexist comments. She was previously Olympic minister and one of just two women in the cabinet, and has pushed for better gender equality at Tokyo 2020. But she said Japan is still not a place where women can feel they want to get involved in politics or business. ‘I want to see an environment where it's easier for a woman to put her hand up and say she wants to do that,’ she added. ‘I think my position is to clear the way for more women of the next generation to be able to do that.’
* Emergency state sought from April 25-May 11 * Curbs cover almost a quarter of Japan's population * PM Suga to announce at 1100 GMT news conference Japan will declare ‘short and powerful’ states of emergency for Tokyo, Osaka and two other prefectures on Friday as the country struggles to contain a resurgent pandemic just three months ahead of the Olympics. Under a new state of emergency for April 25 to May 11, the government will require restaurants, bars, and karaoke parlours serving alcohol to close, and big sporting events to be held without spectators, Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura said. Breaching the restrictions will in some cases carry penalties under a recently revised law, he said. ‘We absolutely have to limit the movement of people, and we have to do it decisively. We need powerful, short and focused measures,’ he said, asking people to remember the lockdowns of last spring and stay at home. The new restrictions are expected to be formally approved at a government task force meeting later on Friday and announced by Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga at an 8 p.m. (1100 GMT) news conference. Department stores, cinemas and other commercial facilities larger than 1,000 square metres will need to close while companies will be asked to make greater allowances for people to work-from-home. Schools will remain open. The state of emergency - a third round for Japan that would also include Kyoto and Hyogo - would last through the ‘Golden Week’ holidays and cover nearly a quarter of the population, in a further hit to the tourism and services industries. ‘We will be asking for illuminations and neon signs to be turned off,’ Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike told a news conference. ‘It will be dark at night,’ she said, adding she hoped the initiative would discourage people from going out at night. Koike also asked non-residents to refrain from entering Tokyo as much as possible. Japan has so far avoided an explosive spread of the pandemic that has crippled many countries. There have been a total of about 550,000 cases and 9,761 deaths, which is significantly lower than the numbers seen in other large economies. But the latest rise in infections has stoked alarm with an explosive surge in the mutant variant and a critical shortage of medical staff and hospital beds in some areas, while Japan's vaccination drive remains sluggish. Organisers of the Tokyo Motor Show on Thursday cancelled the marquee event for this year, in a move likely to raise more questions about the government's insistence that the Tokyo Olympics will go ahead this summer. Tokyo 2020 organisers said on the same day that a policeman who worked with the torch relay had tested positive for the virus, in a first for the event. ‘To make the Games safe and secure, we must contain the spread now and create a suitable environment,’ Koike said, according to Kyodo News. Tokyo reported 759 new infections on Friday, down from 861 a day earlier when the tally hit the highest since Jan. 29, during the previous state of emergency. Several other prefectures remain in a ‘quasi-emergency’ state of targeted infection controls, and Nishimura said the duration would also be extended to May 11 for some.
Japan is set to expand quasi-emergency measures to 10 regions on Friday as a fourth wave of Covid-19 cases spreads, casting more doubt on whether the Summer Olympics can be held in Tokyo in less than 100 days. Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura told reporters the government was considering adding Aichi, Kanagawa, Saitama, and Chiba to six other prefectures already under the orders, including the cities of Tokyo and Osaka. A final decision is expected on Friday afternoon. Japan's top health experts have acknowledged that the Covid-19 pandemic has entered a fourth wave. Daily cases in Osaka reached a record 1,208 on Thursday, driven by a virulent British strain of the virus. New infections rose to 729 in Tokyo, the most since early February when most of the nation was under a state of emergency. A senior ruling party official said on Thursday that cancelling this year's Olympics remains an option if the coronavirus situation becomes too dire. A scaled-back torch relay is already underway. Overseas fans have been barred from the Games and officials say that domestic fans may be kept out too. Olympic and government officials have said further postponement of the Games is out of the question, and Tokyo 2020 President Seiko Hashimoto said on Friday that their commitment to holding the event this summer has not wavered. But a groundswell of health experts have said it's too risky to hold the Games, urging that they be postponed again or canceled. Compounding the problem is Japan's relatively slow inoculation push, which began February using imported vaccines. Japan has exhibited ‘poor performance’ in containing virus transmission, along with limited testing capacity and a slow vaccination rollout, according to a commentary of health experts published in the British Medical Journal on Wednesday. ‘Plans to hold the Olympic and Paralympic games this summer must be reconsidered as a matter of urgency,’ wrote lead author Kazuki Shimizu of the London School of Economics. ‘Holding Tokyo 2020 for domestic political and economic purposes--ignoring scientific and moral imperatives--is contradictory to Japan's commitment to global health and human security.’ A survey of more than 1,000 Japanese doctors last month showed that 75% believed it was better to postpone the Games, according to physician referral company Ishinotomo. Kyoto University professor Hiroshi Nishiura, an advisor to the government's pandemic response, urged in a magazine commentary this week that authorities postpone the Olympics one year to allow for more time to vaccinate the public. Japan began its inoculation push in February, later than most major economies. Only 0.9% of the Japanese public have received their first shot so far, compared with 2.5% in South Korea, and 48% in the United Kingdom. Japan's government denied reports last week that it would prioritise athletes for vaccination. Australia is one nation considering such a move. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said on Thursday the government would do ‘everything possible’ to prevent further contagion ahead of the Games. Suga, currently on a state visit to the United States, may have a call with Pfizer Inc CEO Albert Bourla to request more vaccine supplies, the Kyodo news agency reported, citing government sources.
A senior Japanese politician said cancelling the Tokyo Olympics over the coronavirus remains a possibility on Thursday, as a surge in cases renews concerns about the Games with less than 100 days to go. Toshiro Nikai, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's number two, said the Olympics must be cancelled ‘without hesitation’ if the virus situation is too severe. A year after their historic postponement, the 2020 Olympics remain beset by pandemic problems, with parts of the torch relay forced behind closed doors and public support consistently low. Organisers and Olympic officials insist the Games will go ahead safely, but Nikai said Thursday that all options were on the table. ‘We need to make a decision depending on the situation at the time,’ he told the private TBS television network. ‘We need to cancel it without hesitation if they're no longer possible,’ added Nikai, who is the LDP's secretary general. Asked if he considered cancellation an option, Nikai said: ‘Yes of course.’ ‘If infection spreads because of the Olympics, I don't know what the Olympics is for.’ He added however that he sees the Games as an ‘opportunity’, and it was ‘important for Japan to foster excitement with support from the public’. ‘We definitely want to make a success. In order to do so, there are various issues to solve. It's important to solve them one by one.’ The comments were quickly dismissed by an unnamed LDP official who told the Jiji news agency: ‘The Games will not be cancelled.’ Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike said she had ‘been told that the comment meant it is an option’. ‘I take it as a message of strong encouragement that we contain the coronavirus by all means.’ Nikai's remarks come with fresh worries in Japan about what experts have called a fourth wave of infections. Record numbers of cases have been reported in Osaka in recent days, and the government has been forced to authorise new restrictions just weeks after lifting a virus state of emergency. The surge has already forced the Olympic torch relay off public roads in Osaka, and a city in western Japan also announced Wednesday that it would cancel the public event. - 'Neither safe nor secure' – Compounding the problem is the comparatively slow rollout of the vaccine in Japan, which has so far only approved the Pfizer/BioNTech version. Around 1.1 million people in the country of 126 million have received a first dose of vaccine so far, with the rollout only expanding to the elderly this week. Despite the problems, Olympic organisers insist the Games can be held safely and have released virus rulebooks to allay public fears. Athletes will not be required to quarantine or be vaccinated, but will have to limit movements and be tested regularly. Overseas fans are barred from attending, with a decision on domestic spectators limits expected later this month. However many fans are allowed to attend, the atmosphere will be markedly different from Games past, with cheering strictly banned. Organisers note that sporting events are continuing in Japan, including some international fixtures like the World Team Trophy figure skating, which opens in Osaka Thursday. But opinion polls show a majority of Japanese favour postponing or cancelling of the Games, with those in support hovering below 30 percent. Medical professionals have also warned the Games are a risky prospect, with four experts writing in the British Medical Journal this week urging plans for the event ‘be reconsidered as a matter of urgency’. ‘International mass gathering events such as Tokyo 2020 are still neither safe nor secure,’ they wrote. Despite the obstacles, International Olympic Committee vice president John Coates on Wednesday said organisers were ‘certainly not’ considering a cancellation. ‘Of course we're concerned, of course safety remains our priority, but we believe that we're prepared for the worst situations,’ he said.
* Water release to begin in around two years, take decades * Plan opposed by China, South Korea, Japan's fishery industry * Supporters say in line with disposals from other nuclear plants Japan will release more than 1 million tonnes of contaminated water from the destroyed Fukushima nuclear station into the sea, the government said on Tuesday, a move opposed by neighbours including China, which called it "extremely irresponsible." The first release of water will take place in about two years, giving plant operator Tokyo Electric Power time to begin filtering the water to remove harmful isotopes, build infrastructure and acquire regulatory approval. Japan has argued the water release is necessary to press ahead with the complex decommissioning of the plant after it was crippled by a 2011 earthquake and tsunami, pointing out that similarly filtered water is routinely released from nuclear plants around the world. Nearly 1.3 million tonnes of contaminated water, or enough to fill about 500 Olympic-sized swimming pools, is stored in huge tanks at the Fukushima Daiichi plant at an annual cost of about 100 billion yen ($912.66 million) - and space is running out. "Releasing the ... treated water is an unavoidable task to decommision the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant and reconstruct the Fukushima area," Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said of the process that will take decades to complete. The decision comes about three months ahead of the postponed Tokyo Olympic Games, with some events to be held as close as 60 km to the wrecked plant. Former Japanese Minister Shinzo Abe in 2013 assured the International Olympics Committee in pitching for the games that Fukushima "will never do any damage to Tokyo." Tepco plans to filter the contaminated water to remove isotopes, leaving only tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen hard to separate from water. Tepco will then dilute the water until tritium levels fall below regulatory limits, before pumping it into the ocean. Tritium is considered to be relatively harmless because it does not emit enough energy to penetrate human skin. Other nuclear plants around the world routinely pump water with low levels of the isotope into the ocean. The United States noted that Japan has worked closely with the International Atomic Energy Agency in its handling of the site. "In this unique and challenging situation, Japan has weighed the options and effects, has been transparent about its decision, and appears to have adopted an approach in accordance with globally accepted nuclear safety standards," the U.S. Department of State said in a statement on its website. Japan's neighbours, however, were less positive with both China and South Korea calling for more consultation on the plan. "This action is extremely irresponsible, and will seriously damage international public health and safety, and the vital interests of people in neighbouring countries," China's foreign ministry said in a statement on its website. South Korea expressed "serious concerns that the decision could bring a direct and indirect impact on the safety of our people and surrounding environment", adding it would step up its own radiological measuring and monitoring. Taiwan has also expressed concern. Fishing unions in Fukushima have urged the government for years not to release the water, arguing it would have a "catastrophic impact" on the industry. A Scientific American article reported in 2014 that when ingested tritium can raise cancer risks, while some experts are worried about other contaminants. The water currently contains significant amounts of harmful isotopes despite years of treatment, according to Tepco. "My concern is about non-tritium radioactive contaminants that still remain in the tanks at high levels," said Ken Buesseler, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. "These other contaminants are all of greater health risk than tritium and accumulate more readily in seafood and sea floor sediments," added Buesseler, who has studied the waters around Fukushima. The Japanese government has been keen to stress the filtering and dilution processes. A senior government public affairs official emailed media outlets on Monday to request the term "contaminated" not be used in reporting, arguing it was misleading.
Japanese health authorities are concerned that variants of the coronavirus are driving a nascent fourth wave in the pandemic with just 109 days remaining until the Tokyo Olympics. The variants appear to be more infectious and may be resistant to vaccines, which are still not widely available in Japan. The situation is worst in Osaka, where infections hit fresh records last week, prompting the regional government to start targeted lockdown measures for one month from Monday. A mutant Covid-19 variant first discovered in Britain has taken hold in the Osaka region, spreading faster and filling up hospital beds with more serious cases than the original virus, according to Koji Wada, a government adviser on the pandemic. "The fourth wave is going to be larger," said Wada, a professor at Tokyo's International University of Health and Welfare. "We need to start to discuss how we could utilize these targeted measures for the Tokyo area." Japan has twice declared a state of emergency that covered most of the country in the past year, most recently just after New Year as the pandemic's third and most deadly wave struck. Officials are now opting for more targeted measures that allow local governments to shorten business hours and impose fines for noncompliance. Osaka city cancelled Olympic Torch relay events there, but Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has insisted Japan will carry out the Games as scheduled. Suga said on Sunday that measures employed in the Osaka area could be expanded to Tokyo and elsewhere if needed. There were 249 new infections in Tokyo on Monday, still well below the peak of over 2,500 in January. In Osaka, the tally was 341, down from a record 666 cases on Saturday. The true extent of the mutant cases is unknown, as only a small fraction of positive Covid-19 cases undergo the genomic study necessary to find the variants. A health ministry report last week showed 678 cases of variants from Britain, South Africa, and Brazil had been discovered nationwide and at airports, with the biggest clusters in Osaka and nearby Hyogo prefecture. Those three all have the N501Y mutation, and the latter two also have the E484K mutation. Authorities in Japan have found more than 1,000 cases that only have E484K. That variant was present in about 70% of coronavirus patients tested at a Tokyo hospital last month, Japanese public broadcaster NHK said on Sunday. The rebound in cases came within weeks of the government lifting state of emergency measures, and the priority measures being rolled out now are intended to halt an unexpected rise in mutant cases, said Makoto Shimoaraiso, a Cabinet Secretariat official for Japan's Covid-19 response. "We take the criticism when people say that we have not been able to detect any variants," he said.
Japanese Nobel laureate Isamu Akasaki, who won the physics prize for pioneering energy-efficient LED lighting – a weapon against global warming and poverty – has died aged 92, his university said yesterday. Akasaki won the 2014 prize with two other scientists, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura. Together they developed the blue light-emitting diode, described as a “revolutionary” invention by the Nobel jury. He died of pneumonia on Thursday morning at a hospital in the city of Nagoya, according to a statement on the website of Meijo University, where Akasaki had been a professor. LED lamps last for tens of thousands of hours and use just a fraction of energy compared with the incandescent lightbulb pioneered by Thomas Edison in the 19th century. Red and green diodes had been around for a long time, but devising a blue LED was the holy grail, as all three colours need to be mixed to recreate the white light of the Sun. The trio made their breakthrough in the 1990s, after three long decades of dogged work, when they managed to coax bright blue beams from semiconductors. “Their inventions were revolutionary. Incandescent light bulbs lit the 20th century. The 21st century will be lit by LED lamps,” the Nobel jury said in 2014. As well as providing the missing piece of the puzzle for bright white lamps, their breakthrough also helped develop the colour LED screens used in smartphones and a plethora of modern tech. After winning the prize, Akasaki had advice for young researchers: “Don’t be fooled by fashionable subjects. Do whatever you like if it’s really what you want to do.” “At first, it was said that this could not be invented during the 20th century. A lot of people left (the research project), but I never considered doing so,” he said. Born in 1929 in Kagoshima in southern Japan, Akasaki graduated from the prestigious Kyoto University in 1952. After working for several years as a researcher at Kobe Kogyo Corporation – now Fujitsu – he began his academic career at Nagoya University in 1959. In an interview published by Meijo University in 2010, he described the trio’s struggle to earn recognition for their work. “When we announced in 1981 results which were important at that time at an international conference, there was no reaction. I felt alone in the wilderness,” he said. “But I was determined not to quit this research, even if I was alone.”
Japan’s cherry trees are reaching full bloom in record time this year, the national weather agency has said, linking the early sakura season to the world’s warming climate. In the ancient capital of Kyoto, cherry blossoms hit their peak on March 26 – 10 days sooner than average and the earliest since the government started taking records in 1953. “Our studies have shown that the start of cherry blossom season is closely linked with the average temperature in February and March,” Shunji Ambe, a Japan Meteorological Agency official, told AFP. “Our observations of plant life show that spring phenomena (such as cherry and plum blossoms) tend to take place earlier, while autumn phenomena are delayed,” he said in an e-mail yesterday. “It is our belief that these phenomena reflect a rising temperature trend.” On average, Tokyo’s cherry trees reach full bloom on April 2. This year the capital’s cherry blossom peaked on March 22, a day slower than the earliest logged in 2002. Of the 58 officially designated “observation cherry trees” across Japan, 24 began to flower at the earliest date on record, the agency said. 14 also reached full bloom in record time. Most of these designated trees are of the best-known and beloved yoshino variety – known for its white-pink flowers that bloom for about two weeks then fall in showers of small confetti-like petals. Scholars who have studied ancient Japanese poems and historic records say cherry blossoms of other wild varieties have also appeared earlier over centuries. Japan’s sakura or cherry blossom season is feverishly anticipated by locals and visitors alike, although this year foreign tourists have been kept away by virus border restrictions. It is traditionally celebrated with hanami, or viewing parties, with picnics – and sometimes festivities – organised beneath the trees. But this year gatherings have been discouraged to reduce the spread of coronavirus cases.
The Olympic torch relay set off from Fukushima on Thursday, beginning a four-month countdown to the summer Games in Tokyo, delayed from 2020 and the first ever organised during a global pandemic. About 10,000 runners will carry the torch across Japan's 47 prefectures and far-flung islands, starting from the site of the 2011 quake and tsunami that killed about 20,000 people and sent tens of thousands fleeing radioactive plumes. The first section of the relay did not have spectators, to prevent large crowds, and roadside onlookers elsewhere must wear masks and socially distance as Japan battles the deadly virus and scrambles to vaccinate its people. ‘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. ‘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,’ Hashimoto said. Casting a pall over the celebrations, North Korea launched at least two projectiles suspected to be ballistic missiles hours before the relay began, the first such test reported since US President Joe Biden took office in January. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga assured reporters in Tokyo the government was cooperating with the Tokyo government and the International Olympic Committee to host a secure Games. ‘We will do our utmost in terms of coronavirus measures and continue to work with related areas to contain the spread of infections and hope to work towards a safe and secure Games,’ Suga said. Japan has fared better than most countries during the pandemic, with fewer than 9,000 coronavirus deaths. But a third wave of infections has pushed the numbers to record highs, triggering a state of emergency in Tokyo and other areas that was lifted this week. The majority of the public is against the Olympics being held as scheduled, polls show, and Japan has been the slowest among advanced economies with its vaccination roll out. NO CROWDS OR CHEERING The relay, which will culminate 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 starting ceremony was held at J-Village in Fukushima, a sports complex converted for several years 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 at the site said. Members of the Japanese national women's soccer team used the Olympic flame, flown in from Greece last year, to light the torch. The runners, some wearing masks and white uniforms decorated with red, ran out of J-Village and passed on the flame to the next runner. About a dozen staff escorted the runner, racing together and following a van guiding the relay. Helicopters for live broadcasting followed the run but only a handful of spectators lined the roads, keeping distance, clapping and waving, waiting for the torch to pass. The brief and solemn ceremony - originally planned for thousands of fans as a celebration of Japan's recovery - was closed to the public. It featured several low-key events, including a drum concert and dance performances by a group of residents from Fukushima, followed by a children's choir. Several officials and athletes stood on a stage decorated with flowers from the disaster-hit areas arranged using Japan's traditional ikebana techniques. ‘Fukushima's recovery is going steadily,’ Fukushima governor Masao Uchibori said at the launch. ‘But there are still many people who can't return to their homes, and many difficult issues such as reviving these areas, rebuilding the lives of their residents,’ he said. The torch will travel through some of the worst-hit areas first. Japan has spent nearly $300 billion to revive the region, but many locals are apprehensive about the Games, as areas in Fukushima remain off-limits, worries about radiation linger and many who left have settled elsewhere. Decommissioning will take up to a century and cost billions of dollars.
Two Americans accused of helping former Nissan boss Carlos Ghosn jump bail and escape from Japan were indicted on Monday and face up to three years in prison. The father-son pair arrived in Japan earlier this month from the United States after losing their battle to avoid extradition. Both Michael Taylor and his son Peter face a single charge of helping a criminal escape. The pair, along with a third man still at large, is believed to have masterminded the operation that saw former international jet-setter Ghosn packed into an audio-equipment case and onto a private jet to jump bail in December 2019. Ghosn is now beyond the reach of Japanese justice in Lebanon, which does not have an extradition treaty with Tokyo. But the Taylors were arrested in the US last year after Japan issued a warrant for them. They sought to block Tokyo's extradition request by claiming they would face torture-like conditions while in custody in Japan, but the US Supreme Court struck down their appeal in February. Ghosn was a global business superstar and head of an auto alliance joining Nissan, Renault and Mitsubishi Motors before his career came crashing to an abrupt end in November 2018, when Tokyo investigators stormed his private jet to arrest him. The French-Lebanese-Brazilian national was eventually charged with four counts of financial misconduct over claims he hid compensation and misused Nissan funds. Having spent months in detention, Ghosn was out on bail awaiting trial on the charges -- which he denies -- when he fled the country in what Japanese prosecutors termed "one of the most brazen and well-orchestrated escape acts in recent history". Having spent months in detention, Ghosn was out on bail awaiting trial on the charges -- which he denies -- when he fled the country in what Japanese prosecutors termed "one of the most brazen and well-orchestrated escape acts in recent history". The details of his escape proved embarrassing to Japanese authorities -- with the former tycoon allegedly having boarded a train to Osaka before evading security checks at Kansai airport by boarding a private jet packed into an oversized box that was not scanned. After his arrival in Lebanon, Ghosn claimed that he had been forced to escape because he feared he would not get a fair hearing. While Ghosn remains at large, the repercussions of both the original case against him and his escape from Japan continue. In Tokyo, his former close aide at Nissan, Greg Kelly, is currently on trial for his alleged role in underreporting Ghosn's income. Nissan itself faces charges in the case and has pleaded guilty. And a Turkish court has sentenced two pilots and another employee of a small private airline to four years and two months in prison for their role in Ghosn's escape. Ghosn transited in Turkey, switching planes on his way to Lebanon, and the three Turks were charged with involvement in conspiracy to smuggle a migrant. Two other pilots and two flight attendants on trial in Turkey were acquitted.
Overseas fans will be banned from this summer's pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics, organisers said Saturday, in a bid to reduce virus risks and convince a sceptical Japanese public the Games will be safe. The unprecedented decision will make the Tokyo Games the first ever held without overseas spectators, as organisers scale back their ambitions for the pandemic event. When the decision to postpone the Games was taken last year, officials said the delay would allow them to hold the event as "proof of humanity's triumph over the virus." But instead, the Games are shaping up to be a largely television event for most of the world, with little of the international party atmosphere that usually characterises an Olympics. In a statement issued after talks between local organisers, Japanese officials and Olympic and Paralympic chiefs, Games officials said the virus situation in Japan and abroad remained "very challenging". "Based on the present situation of the pandemic, it is highly unlikely that entry into Japan will be guaranteed this summer for people from overseas," they added. As a result, "the parties on the Japanese side have come to the conclusion that they (overseas fans) will not be able to enter into Japan at the time of the Olympic and Paralympic Games." The International Olympic Committee and International Paralympic Committee "fully respect and accept this conclusion," the statement added, saying refund details would be released soon. IOC chief Thomas Bach set the stage for the decision at the start of talks between the parties earlier Saturday evening, warning "difficult decisions" would be necessary to ensure safety. The move had been widely anticipated in recent weeks, with leaks suggesting organisers believe a ban on overseas fans is the only option as they work to make the Games safe despite the pandemic. The IOC has reportedly sought limited exemptions for some overseas guests, but the rules are likely to be strict. Tokyo 2020 chief Seiko Hashimoto has admitted it will be "difficult" for even the families of foreign athletes to attend. Just how many domestic spectators will be in venues this summer has yet to be decided. Organisers originally suggested they would rule on that by April, but Bach has said the decision could be pushed closer to the July 23 opening ceremony. Whatever they decide, there's no doubt that barring overseas fans will help make the Games a very different event from years past. "It has never happened that foreign spectators were banned from entering the host country at the time of the Games, even during the Spanish flu at the time of the Antwerp 1920 Olympic Games," said Jean-Loup Chappelet, a Lausanne-based professor who specialises in the Olympics. "Even for Athens 1896, the Cook agency organised 'packages' for those who wanted to attend the first modern Games." When the Games were postponed last year, organisers and Japanese officials had hoped that the pandemic would be receding by spring 2021. They proclaimed the event would mark the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, and a celebration of the end of a global crisis. But even with vaccines rolling out in much of the world, the virus continues to cause havoc, and the narrative from Olympic officials looks to be changing. The torch relay kicks off next week, with spectators barred from the launch ceremony and those lining the route asked to avoid cheering. In an interview last week, Tokyo 2020 CEO Toshiro Muto acknowledged that the virus situation in the Japanese capital remained "extremely serious" and said the Games offered "solidarity" during a difficult time. Japan's public remains sceptical about the safety of the event, with a majority opposed to holding it this year and favouring either cancellation or further postponement. But organisers and Olympic officials have said neither of those are options, and they have put together virus rulebooks they say will ensure the Games are safe regardless of the pandemic. The IOC is also encouraging athletes to get vaccinated, even securing a supply of doses from China to offer to those in countries without advanced inoculation programmes. The year-long delay and virus safety countermeasures have helped balloon Tokyo 2020's already mammoth budget to an eyewatering 1.64 trillion yen ($15 billion), making the Games potentially the most expensive summer Olympics in history.
The Japanese government's advisory panel on coronavirus measures approved on Thursday a plan to let the state of emergency expire in the Tokyo area as scheduled on March 21, while the capital's governor warned citizens not to let down their guard. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga had flagged the move on Wednesday, saying the availability of hospital beds had improved in Tokyo and its three neighbouring prefectures, where restrictions have remained since early January. ‘There was no objection to the plan,’ Economy Minister Yasuhisa Nishimura, who also heads Japan's coronavirus response, said after a meeting with the advisory panel. He added, however, that experts noted that infections had been creeping up in recent days, and that a resurgence was bound to occur. While under pressure to bring Covid-19 under control ahead of the Tokyo Olympics this summer, the government is eager to jumpstart economic activity in the Greater Tokyo area, whose 36 million residents account for 30% of Japan's population. The number of new Covid-19 cases has plunged from a peak in early January, when the third and most deadly wave of the pandemic swept the country. But the daily tally for Tokyo remains far from Governor Yuriko Koike's target of reducing the seven-day average to 70% or lower than the preceding week. On Wednesday, the capital reported 409 cases, compared with a peak of 2,520 on Jan. 7, but the highest since mid-February. ‘(The state of emergency will be lifted) on the 21st, but does that mean anything goes after that? No, it doesn't, and we have to see it as entering a new stage,’ Koike told reporters. ‘The first drop of vaccines for (Tokyo's) 14 million has only just begun, and until we're done, we have to fight with our bare hands,’ she said. While other parts of the country lifted the emergency status at the end of February, Tokyo, Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama prefectures extended it, with officials saying they wanted to see a continued decline in infections and hospitalisations. Under the curbs, restaurants and bars are asked to close by 8 p.m and companies to allow more telecommuting. After the lifting of the emergency, the four prefectures will ask eateries to close by 9 p.m., at least until the end of March, to reduce the chance of a resurgence in infections, Kanagawa Governor Yuji Kuroiwa said on Wednesday. The government's task force will meet later on Thursday to finalise the plan, followed by a news conference by Prime Minister Suga at 7 p.m. (1000 GMT). So far in Japan, roughly 449,000 people have tested positive and 8,715 have died from Covid-19 as of Wednesday.
Spectators will be barred from the start of the Tokyo Olympics torch relay, organisers said Monday, announcing a pared-back launch as the countdown to the postponed Games begins in earnest. Fans were told to stay away from next week's ‘simplified’ starting ceremony and first leg of the nationwide relay, which was put on hold a year ago when the Olympics were delayed over the coronavirus. ‘The grand start ceremony and the first section of the Fukushima torch relay... will not be open to the public,’ organisers said in a statement, adding that the festivities would be broadcast live online. The announcement comes ahead of a decision on whether fans from overseas will be allowed to enter Japan for the coronavirus-delayed Games, which is expected to be taken before the torch relay begins on March 25. Reports last week suggested the Japanese government is set to ban fans from abroad over fears of a rise in infections. The torch relay will begin in Fukushima prefecture, which last week marked the 10th anniversary of the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster that left 18,500 dead or missing. But the torch, headed for the Olympics opening ceremony on July 23, will get a more muted send-off than originally planned. ‘In order to allow all possible Covid-19 countermeasures to be taken, the number of participants travelling from Tokyo to the site is being substantially curtailed,’ Tokyo 2020 said. ‘In addition, the programme has been simplified and the number of performers at the ceremony has been reduced.’ About 3,000 spectators had been expected to attend the relay's starting ceremony.
A bus carrying school children and some parents returning from an excursion plunged into a ravine on the Indonesian island of Java on Wednesday night, killing 27 people, the country's transportation ministry said. The search and rescue agency said in a statement on Thursday that the driver of the bus lost control shortly before the crash in an area near the city of Sumedang in West Java province. The transportation ministry said the bus was carrying junior high school students and some parents and that 39 people had survived. Photographs from the scene showed the bus had ended up on its side with rescue workers trying to search for any more victims. Supriono, a local search and rescue agency official, said later evacuation efforts had been completed and survivors taken to a nearby hospital. The exact cause of the crash was not immediately clear, though the ministry said there were initial indications that the vehicle's road worthiness tests were not up to date.
With a moment of silence, prayers and anti-nuclear protests, Japan on Thursday mourned about 20,000 victims of the massive earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan 10 years ago, destroying towns and triggering nuclear meltdowns in Fukushima. Huge waves triggered by the 9.0-magnitude quake - one of the strongest on record - crashed into the northeastern coast, crippling the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant and forcing more than 160,000 residents to flee as radiation spewed into the air. The world's worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl and the tremor have left survivors struggling to overcome the grief of losing families and towns to the waves in a few frightening hours on the afternoon of March 11, 2011. About 50 kilometres (31 miles) south from the plant, in the gritty coastal city of Iwaki, which has since become a hub for labourers working on nuclear decommissioning, restaurant owner Atsushi Niizuma prayed to his mother killed by the waves. ‘I want to tell my mother that my children, who were all close to her, are doing well. I came here to thank her that our family is living safely,’ said Niizuma, 47. Before setting off for work, he quietly paid his respects at a stone monument at a seaside shrine with carvings of his mother's name, Mitsuko, and 65 others who died in the disaster. On the day of the earthquake, Mitsuko was looking after his children. The children rushed into a car but Mitsuko was swept away by the waves as she returned to the house to grab her belongings. It took a month to recover her body, Niizuma said. The Akiba shrine has become a symbol of resilience for the survivors, as it was barely damaged by the tsunami while houses nearby were swept away or burned down. About two dozen residents gathered with Niizuma to decorate it with paper cranes, flowers and yellow handkerchiefs with messages of hope sent by students from across the country. ‘It was sleeting 10 years ago, and it was cold. The coldness always brought me back to the memory of what happened on the day,’ said Hiroko Ishikawa, 62. ‘But with my back soaking up the sun today, we are feeling more relaxed. It's as if the sun is telling us that 'It's okay, why don't you go talk with everyone who came back to visit their hometown?'‘ REMEMBERING THE DEAD Emperor Naruhito and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga were slated to honour the dead at a commemorative anniversary ceremony in Tokyo while several other events were planned across northeastern Japan, which was most badly hit by the tremor. The government has spent about $300 billion (32.1 trillion yen) to rebuild the region, but areas around the Fukushima plant remain off-limits, worries about radiation levels linger and many who left have settled elsewhere. Decommissioning of the crippled plant will take decades and billions of dollars. Some 40,000 people are still displaced by the disaster. Japan is again debating the role of nuclear power in its energy mix as the resource-poor country aims to achieve net carbon neutrality by 2050 to fight global warming. But an NHK public TV survey showed 85% of the public worries about nuclear accidents. The mass demonstrations against nuclear power seen in the wake of 3/11 have faded, but distrust lingers. Some antinuclear activists are planning demonstrations in front of the operator of the plant, Tokyo Electric Power, for Thursday night. Only nine of Japan's 33 remaining commercial reactors have been approved for restarts under post-Fukushima safety standards and only four are operating, compared with 54 before the disaster. Nuclear power supplied just 6% of Japan's energy needs in the first half of 2020 compared with 23.1% for renewable sources - far behind Germany's 46.3% - and nearly 70% for fossil fuels.