The Tokyo segment of the Olympic torch relay started with a small-scale ceremony on Friday, a day after organizers decided to stage the games without spectators at almost all venues due to a surge in coronavirus infections.
Two weeks before the opening of the Olympics, Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike marked the start of the 15-day section of the relay, most of which was taken off of public roads as the Japanese capital struggles with spiking COVID-19 infections.
"Due to the impact of the novel coronavirus, the flame was sometimes impossible to be carried on public roads. But by overcoming the difficult situation with strong wishes of everyone across the country and various means, it has been connected to this point as a way of hope," Koike said from a stage set up on the athletics track in a Komazawa Olympic Park stadium.
"I'd like (torchbearers in Tokyo) to put their respective feelings into the flame and surely connect it to the Olympic stadium," she said.
Despite wet conditions and the ceremony being held behind closed doors, about 100 people gathered around the arena in an attempt to get a glimpse of the flame that has traversed 46 of the country's 47 prefectures since the nationwide relay began in late March.
Among them was Mieko Seki, a 74-year-old who came to the park, home to several sports during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, with her 98-year-old mother.
"I was looking forward to seeing the runners carrying the torch just like I did in the previous Tokyo Olympics, but unfortunately it didn't happen," Seki said.
Although she had not purchased tickets for the upcoming Olympics, she thinks having spectators in venues was unlikely to be a big issue.
"If we thoroughly follow rules such as avoiding loudly cheering at venues, I don't think having spectators would have caused a major problem," she said.
The relay started its time in Tokyo just a day after the Japanese government decided to impose a state of emergency on the metropolis for a period including the duration of the games.
Taking effect Monday, the emergency declaration is aimed at containing a fresh wave of COVID-19 infections.
A 47-year-old local woman, who braved the rain in hopes of seeing the flame at the park, said she has "mixed feelings" about the Olympics.
"I don't know how I will explain it to my 12-year-old son if his school trip scheduled next month is canceled again because of the state of the emergency, but the games can go ahead," she said.
Meanwhile, a group of around 10 people protested the Tokyo Games just outside the athletics stadium, chanting "Stop the Olympics, stop the Paralympics and put out the flame."
Protestor Yoko Kadokura, 78, posed the question, "What is the point of holding the Olympics when so many people are against them and we cannot interact with each other at the games?"
"It's only two weeks to go, but I will keep raising my voice...especially given (Tokyo) will be placed under a state of emergency," she said while wearing a handwritten sign hanging from her neck with the words "Life is more important than the Olympics" on it.
More than 100 runners were initially scheduled to carry the torch on Friday in a district near the park and three cities in the western suburbs of the capital's central area. They instead participated in a flame-lighting ceremony attended only by family and friends.
The Olympic flame started in the northeastern prefecture of Fukushima, but many segments were removed from public roads to stop groups of spectators from congregating.
In Tokyo, the flame was scheduled to go through world-famous tourist areas and landmarks, including the 634-meter Tokyo Skytree tower, the busy Shibuya scramble crossing and the Roppongi district, a popular nightlife spot, before entering the National Stadium during the Olympic opening ceremony on July 23.
The Japanese organizers of the Olympics had originally hoped the 121-day torch relay featuring some 10,000 torchbearers would help build enthusiasm amid public opposition to holding the Olympics this summer, but sentiment has not shifted appreciably.
The Olympic flame was lit at a ceremony without spectators in Greece and arrived in Japan on March 20, 2020, just four days before the Tokyo Games were pushed back for one year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Since early July this year, athletes and team staff from around the world have started arriving in Japan en masse for pre-games training camps held in municipalities across the country.