TOKYO — An online petition with more than 350,000 signatures calling for the Tokyo Games to be canceled was submitted Friday to local organizers, the International Olympic Committee and others.
The Olympics are scheduled to open in just 10 weeks on July 23 in the midst of a pandemic with Tokyo and other areas under a state of emergency. Cases continue to rise in Japan, where less than 2% of the population has been fully vaccinated.
The petition campaign — called “Stop Tokyo Olympics” — was drafted by well-known lawyer Kenji Utsunomiya, who has also run for governor of Tokyo. He said the response was surprising but acknowledged that this was too little, and probably too late.
“I think that the media coverage puts a lot of pressure on the IOC, the International Paralympic Committee, the Japanese government, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and the organizing committee,” Utsunomiya said at a news conference. “So in that sense, I am glad I did it. However, in terms of the numbers, I think that tens of millions of signatures are really necessary.”
Utsunomiya said the Olympics would divert medical services from the general public, which has been a rising concern as hospitals come under strains that could get worse as the games approach.
Organizers and the IOC say they will hold the games safely, isolating 15,400 Olympic and Paralympic athletes in a “bubble” and repeatedly testing them and the tens of thousands of others — judges, staff, sponsors, media and broadcasters — who will enter a country that has had its borders sealed for a year.
Japan has attributed about 11,000 deaths to COVID-19, good by world standards but poor in Asia where places like Taiwan and South Korea have been more successful.
There in no indication the Olympics will be canceled with billions of dollars riding on it, although there has been opposition from the local medical community. Last month, the British Medical Journal suggested the games be “reconsidered.”
The IOC relies on selling broadcast rights for almost 75% of its income — 18% more is from sponsors — and Japan has officially spent $15.4 billion to organize the Olympics. A government audit has suggested the number might be twice that large.
Seiko Hashimoto, the president of the Tokyo organizing committee, was pressed on Japan’s stretched medical system at her weekly briefing on Friday — held separately from the petition submission.
Organizers have said several times said they will need 10,000 medical participants to staff the Olympics. But Hashimoto hedged this time on the numbers and the size of the staff needed. Organizers have also been looking for nurses to volunteer, and sports medicine specialists.
This crunch comes as at least two prefectures near Tokyo — Ibaraki and Chiba — have said they will not be able to treat Olympic participants who fall ill. Another prefecture, Kanagawa, suggested something similar.
Also on Friday, the Japanese government said it would issue a state of emergency for three more prefectures, joining Tokyo, Osaka and several others. The three are the northern Hokkaido prefecture, and Hiroshima and Okayama in western Japan. The restrictions last until May 31. Bars, karaoke parlors and most entertainment facilities are required to close. Business owner who comply will be compensated; those who don’t face fines.
“On the point about the number of staff needed and how many medical staff we need, and how many hospitals we need to be working with — all of this we are still not in a position to share at this point yet,” Hashimoto said. “But we will be sharing the information when it becomes available.”
She said the size of medical staff could depend on a decision about how many local fans — if any — will be allowed to attend events. She promised that number for April, but has pushed it back until June. Fans from abroad have already been banned.
Hashimoto repeatedly acknowledged the public unease about the health care system.
“The largest concern that people have is whether holding the Tokyo Games could severely impact the capacity of the medical practitioners and the health care community in making proper treatment of those people who are infected,” she said. “We are doing our best to put into effect the most stringent of anti-COVID-19 measures.”