The flame for this summer's Tokyo Olympics arrived Friday at an air base in Japan, beginning the domestic buildup even as doubts continue over what impact the coronavirus pandemic would have on the country's hosting of the sporting showpiece.
The Japanese leg of the torch relay, with the concept of "Hope Lights Our Way," will begin next week and take the flame received from Greece all over the country, though restrictions have been imposed on the turnout of spectators due to concern over the spread of the virus.
Olympic organizers had to significantly downsize the ceremony to welcome the flame at the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force's Matsushima base in Miyagi, one of the prefectures devastated by a massive earthquake and tsunami nine years ago.
"With safety first, we made a painful decision," Tokyo organizing committee President Yoshiro Mori said, adding that by following advice from the World Health Organization, "We will make every effort to prepare for a safe and secure games."
The event, held in blustery conditions, was attended by a limited number of people, also including Japan's Olympic minister Seiko Hashimoto and two three-time gold medalists -- judoka Tadahiro Nomura and freestyle wrestler Saori Yoshida.
They were to have been part of a high-level delegation sent to receive the flame in Athens a day earlier, but the plan was aborted as the virus rapidly spreads across Europe.
"It is finally starting. Now is a time with many difficulties, but I hope this torch relay will be able to deliver cheer and hope to everyone," said Yoshida, who with Nomura received the flame in a lantern and lit an Olympic cauldron on the tarmac of the air base.
Due to coronavirus precautions, many festivities for the games have been affected since an event to ignite the flame was held on March 12 in Greece as scheduled, though without the presence of spectators.
Following the arrival of the flame aboard a chartered plane named "Tokyo 2020 Go," the air force's Blue Impulse aerobatics team traced the five Olympic rings in the sky with colored smoke.
But the rings were not clearly visible and were soon erased by strong winds.
While admitting the current difficult situation stemming from the spread of the virus, the International Olympic Committee and Japanese officials have insisted the games will begin as planned on July 24.
Nonetheless, more voices have been raised in recent days about postponing the opening of the Olympics, which is to be followed by the Paralympics on Aug. 25, given a series of suspensions of qualifiers and concern about the health risk to athletes.
The IOC said earlier this week that only about 57 percent of athletes have qualified for the Tokyo Games.
The IOC is "considering different scenarios," its president, Thomas Bach, said in an interview with The New York Times on Thursday, while stressing that "cancellation is not on the agenda."
A recent Kyodo News survey found that 69.9 percent of people in Japan do not expect the games to be held as scheduled given the spread of the pneumonia-causing virus. Since the outbreak began in China late last year, more than 244,500 people have been infected and over 10,000 killed worldwide.
After the arrival ceremony, what the Tokyo organizing committee calls the "Flame of Recovery" was transported to a coastal memorial park in the adjacent city of Ishinomaki, built in the district where about 400 of over 3,200 people lost their lives -- the most in Miyagi Prefecture -- in the March 2011 tsunami and fire following the magnitude 9.0 quake.
The flame will be put on public display also in Iwate and Fukushima, two other prefectures hit hardest by the natural disaster and subsequent nuclear crisis, for two days each before the start of the 121-day torch relay.
Strong winds caused some disruption but a cauldron was eventually lit at Ishinomaki Minamihama Tsunami Recovery Memorial Park in the afternoon, as thousands formed a long queue and waited for hours to get close to the flame.
"It's definitely pleasing, I felt we're not forgotten," Yoshiko Kusakari, 59, said after getting to see the flame from a few meters away. "It was cold today but I knew I'd regret it if I didn't come over and get to see it, and it was well worth it."
Another woman in her 20s said the city has been restored on the surface but people have not recovered psychologically, and local junior high school teacher Takashi Oyama, 40, agreed that recovery has only just begun.
"We still have people going through hardships. We can't easily say we or the region have recovered," Oyama said.
"We need to keep helping each other out, and the same goes for the current situation regarding the Olympics. I hope the flame becomes a source of hope for this region, the games and everyone affected by the coronavirus," he said.
The relay, with the torch decorated in a cherry blossom motif, will kick off on Thursday in Fukushima Prefecture at the J-Village soccer training center, which served as a frontline base of operations to battle the nuclear disaster.
Members of the Nadeshiko Japan soccer team, who won the Women's World Cup in 2011, will be the first runners, but the ceremony for the torch's departure will be held behind closed doors.
While requesting that people refrain from watching the relay from the roadside in large groups, the Japanese organizing committee has said ceremonies marking the start and end of each day of the relay will be held without spectators at least until April 1.