Fewer than 30 leaders to attend opening ceremony

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga plans to conduct so-called Olympic diplomacy with world leaders during the Tokyo Olympics, which are to start Friday.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, however, fewer than 30 heads of state and other officials of similar stature were expected to attend the opening ceremony. This is the lowest number on record for a recent Olympics.

At their meetings, Suga will express his gratitude to the leaders and officials who have come to Japan and propose they cooperate to overcome the pandemic.

Suga is scheduled to meet with French President Emmanuel Macron and U.S. first lady Jill Biden, as well as heads of state from Mongolia, Poland and other nations at the State Guest House in the Motoakasaka district of Tokyo from Thursday to Saturday. The prime minister also plans to meet with leaders of international organizations, including World Health Organisation chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

Most of the talks are expected to last 15 to 20 minutes, and will be held consecutively. However, the prime minister is expected to set aside a larger block of time to meet with Jill Biden on Friday, to make it clear that Japan prioritizes the relationship with the United States.

On Saturday, Suga will hold a dinner with Macron to confirm their future cooperation, as France is the host of the next Olympics.

China and South Korea have decided that their top leaders will not visit Japan. Instead, China's Vice Premier Sun Chunlan and South Korea's Culture, Sports and Tourism Minister Hwang Hee are expected to attend the opening ceremony.

According to Japan's Foreign Ministry, about 80 state leaders attended the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics. At the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, the number was about 40 due to political instability and the Zika virus outbreak.

More than 100 such people were initially expected to attend the Tokyo Olympics' opening ceremony. However, Britain's Princess Anne and U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres decided not to come, citing the COVID-19 pandemic as a reason.

One reason for the foreign leaders' cancellation of their trips seems to be the tight restrictions imposed by the Japanese government, such as banning contact with athletes from their countries.

Past Olympic Games have been used as important places for summit meetings and opportunities to demonstrate national prestige.

At the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attended the opening ceremony despite the absence of some European and American leaders due to Russian policies, including a law related to homosexuality. Abe aimed to hold talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin to advance negotiations on the northern territories.

During the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, then Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda was hospitalized, and full-fledged Olympic diplomacy was not possible. However, key figures from various countries came to Japan to witness the postwar reconstruction of Japan, and this is said to have helped improve Japan's international standing.

"Only a few top-level leaders will meet with our prime minister [during the Tokyo Olympics], but meeting with them will be a valuable opportunity to show international cooperation amid the COVID-19 pandemic," a senior Foreign Ministry official said.