Japan began vaccinating the elderly against COVID-19 on Monday, while Tokyo as well as Kyoto and Okinawa prefectures imposed tougher restrictions to fight a resurgence of infections.
People aged 65 or older, a group of roughly 36 million people, became eligible to receive shots, nearly two months after the country began vaccinating health care workers.
A total of 1,139 seniors received COVID-19 shots on the first day of the vaccination drive targeting that particular age group, the government said.
The government hopes to deliver the necessary amount of the vaccine developed by Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE, the only one approved by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare so far, to municipalities by late June.
"We will work to ensure everyone can get their shots as soon as possible," Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga told reporters after visiting a vaccination site in Hachioji, western Tokyo.
Just over 1.1 million people in Japan have received at least one dose of the Pfizer vaccine, less than 1 percent of its population of about 126 million. The Pfizer vaccine is administered twice, three weeks apart.
The rollout has been held back by production delays and the European Union's export controls, which require individual shipments to be authorized, as well as Japan's requirement for clinical trials to be held domestically in order for vaccines to be approved.
In a Kyodo News poll conducted over the weekend and Monday, 60.3 percent of respondents expressed dissatisfaction with the progress of vaccinations, compared with 36.5 percent who were not dissatisfied.
Suga is rushing to bring the coronavirus under control with a little over three months until the Tokyo Olympics and ahead of a general election by the fall.
Infections have been rising again across Japan, with 2,109 new cases confirmed nationwide on Monday.
Osaka Prefecture in western Japan reported the highest number of cases at 603, followed by Tokyo at 306, the most for that day of the week since early February, when the capital was under a state of emergency.
Hyogo and Aichi prefectures confirmed 159 and 122 new cases, respectively, the same day.
The central government has designated prefectures with surging cases as requiring tougher measures to control the spread of the virus, but it has stopped short of declaring a third state of emergency, apparently hoping not to complicate efforts to host the postponed Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics this summer.
Under the new measures in Tokyo, Kyoto and Okinawa, restaurants and bars in densely populated areas are being asked to close by 8 p.m. and attendance at large events is capped at 5,000.
The restrictions, which have been described as a quasi-state of emergency, will last through May 5 for Kyoto and Okinawa, and May 11 for Tokyo, covering the Golden Week holidays.
Suga has called on people to refrain from nonessential travel between prefectures during this period, expressing concern over the spread of highly contagious variants of the virus.
The torch relay for the Olympics, meanwhile, began in Japan in late March, several days after the end of the second state of emergency.
The vaccination rate in Japan, which currently completely depends on imports for its coronavirus vaccine supply, lags far behind Britain and the United States. It is also lower than the global average of 5 percent.
With an increasing strain on the medical system amid a resurgence of infections, there is concern that doctors and nurses may not be able to keep up with the vaccination schedule.
Japan launched the vaccination program in mid-February, starting with its about 4.8 million health care workers.
It is expected that the rollout will rev up from the final week of April, when all of the 1,741 municipalities in Japan will have received one box.
Elderly people from villages to cities expressed relief at having received their shots. The elderly, who compose around 29 percent the population, tend to develop more serious symptoms than younger people when infected with the virus.
At a clinic in Kitaaiki in the central Japan prefecture of Nagano, 100-year-old Kesaku Takamizawa was the first person in the village to receive a shot.
"All the worry that I carried inside my head is gone," he said after showing no adverse reaction following his shot.
His daughter-in-law, Yumiko, 67, was vaccinated next. She said that her daughters, who reside in the Tokyo metropolitan area, might now feel more comfortable about coming to see her again.
"I hope that (as we have) taken this vaccine, my daughters will be able to visit," she said with a smile.
In Hachioji, a city in Tokyo which is currently under a quasi-state of emergency, three doctors and six nurses were at the ready in the city hall for the elderly who made appointments on a first-come, first-served basis.
"I thought it would hurt more, but it wasn't the case. I am thankful that I was one of the first," said Yoshitaka Akatsuka, 74. Reservations for the first 1,900 doses offered by Hachioji were filled within 90 minutes, the city said.
In Nagasaki, southwestern Japan, the city is prioritizing nursing homes that have high numbers of people necessitating extensive care. It plans to send out doctors to vaccinate around 1,900 people in 30 facilities.
A home for victims of the 1945 U.S. atomic bombing in the city is planning to vaccinate around 300 residents within three days.
"Those vaccinated seemed relieved. We would like to start considering how to resume family visits which have been suspended due to the pandemic," said Fusayo Tsutsumi, director of the home.
Vaccine deliveries to all of Japan's prefectures started last week with distribution of 100 boxes, each enough for giving two shots to 500 people. Each prefecture received two boxes, except for populous Tokyo, Kanagawa and Osaka prefectures which received four.
Following the elderly, people with pre-existing conditions, such as diabetes, and those working at elderly care facilities are slated to be inoculated next, after which vaccinations will eventually be extended to the rest of the population.