FUKUSHIMA, Japan — When Bruna Noguchi signed up to be a torchbearer for the Tokyo Olympics a year and a half ago — before the coronavirus pandemic, before the resignations of two top officials over sexist remarks — she never dreamed it could be a controversial decision.
But as the relay kicked off on Thursday morning in Fukushima Prefecture, the ceremony and those participating in it were at the center of a national debate, with many questioning whether the Games should go on in spite of the virus, the ballooning costs and other growing challenges.
While more than three dozen people, including about 20 celebrities, have withdrawn from the relay, Ms. Noguchi, 22, has decided to participate. She is one of 10,000 people who will carry the torch over the next four months, from Fukushima to Okinawa in the far south to Hokkaido in the north and on to the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo.
“I can understand the feelings of the people who have decided to withdraw from the relay,” Ms. Noguchi, who is from Gunma Prefecture, northwest of Tokyo, said in a recent interview. “But I’m not worried.”
Twitter users accused Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who has faced a backlash for his insistence on holding the Games despite widespread public opposition, of timing the decision for the start of the torch relay.
Case numbers have surged in recent weeks in Miyagi and Yamagata Prefectures in the Tohoku region of Japan, which also includes Fukushima Prefecture, and a local state of emergency was declared last week.
Tatsuya Maruyama, the governor of Shimane Prefecture, in western Japan, said early last month that it was “difficult to cooperate” with the torch relay and the Tokyo Games because of the coronavirus situation.
restrictions on the torch relay. The grand ceremony on Thursday and the first section of the relay were closed to the public. Routes will not be announced until 30 minutes before the start time, and spectators can attend the relay only in their home prefectures.
No cheering or shouting is allowed, and fans must offer “support with applause or using distributed goods.” The relay will be live-streamed by NHK, Japan’s public broadcaster.
Despite the precautions, some people in Fukushima said they were still worried. Shuhei Ohno, 34, a chef in Koriyama, said he feared that the torch relay may “raise the infection risk” nationwide.
“The vaccine hasn’t spread widely enough in Japan yet, so how can there already be plans to host the Olympics?” he said.
Still, the organizers are pressing ahead. Over the next 121 days, Ms. Noguchi, the runner from Gunma, and her fellow torchbearers will trot across Japan’s 47 prefectures, including islands off the coast of Tokyo, before completing the torch’s journey on July 23, the day of the opening ceremony.
Ms. Noguchi remains sanguine. She wishes to use her 200-meter run with the torch later this month to thank the community that raised her, as well as to bring hope after a year plagued by an increase in suicides, economic hardship and intense sacrifices by health care workers.
Although the authorities seem determined to hold the Games, Ms. Noguchi acknowledged that if the coronavirus situation worsened severely between now and July, it could still force a postponement or cancellation.
“At least in that case, I was still able to run in the torch relay,” she said.