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Protests emerge over having children view Olympic soccer games at east Japan stadium

Signs welcoming countries participating in the first round of Olympic soccer games at Ibaraki Kashima Stadium are seen raised on the balcony of the Kashima City Society of Commerce & Industry building, in Kashima, Ibaraki Prefecture, on July 14, 2021. (Mainichi/Taichi Nemoto)

While spectators will be banned from almost all venues at the upcoming Tokyo Olympic Games, Ibaraki Kashima Stadium northeast of Tokyo is set to allow only local schoolchildren and their escorting staff to view Olympic soccer games, sparking protests from citizens in fear of the spread of the coronavirus, among other reasons.

    Officials of the Ibaraki Prefectural Government and the Kashima Municipal Government have been inundated with calls and emails demanding that the decision to accommodate schoolchildren at the stadium in the city of Kashima be revoked. A majority of the opponents are citing fears for the spread of COVID-19, while some are lodging an objection based on misperceptions regarding the plan.

    The controversial decision was reached on July 8 between the prefectural government and the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. It allows children to watch a total of three first-round matches of men's and women's soccer by using tickets allocated to schoolchildren of local municipalities hosting Olympic games.

    Under the accord, roughly 4,000 people -- including students at 23 elementary and junior high schools in the cities of Kashima and Tsukubamirai and private high schools in Ibaraki Prefecture, as well as teachers and others accompanying them -- will be able to watch Olympic soccer games live at the stadium. The ground is home to Japanese professional football powerhouse Kashima Antlers.

    According to Ibaraki Gov. Kazuhiko Oigawa, the prefectural government proposed holding the soccer matches without spectators in principle. However, as a way to strike a balance between the organizing committee's push to allow spectators at the stadium and measures to curb the flow of people from the metropolitan area including Tokyo, which is under a fourth COVID-19 state of emergency, the decision to accept only holders of the tickets for local schoolchildren was reached.

    However, after the policy was announced, a total of some 100 emails and calls in protest swamped the prefectural government on July 9 and 12. The Kashima Municipal Government and other bodies have also received "countless numbers of" opinions against the decision, according to local authorities.

    Many opponents said it makes no sense to create an opportunity for children to view the games at a time when many Olympic venues have been made spectator-free because of high coronavirus transmission risks. The protesters reportedly voiced concerns for many children gathering at the stadium.

    Meanwhile, there are some misperceptions among those objecting to the plan, according to a source familiar with the situation. Some people are protesting against children "from across the nation" assembling at the stadium. The source noted, "Those who are going to watch the games are children who are regularly involved in group activities at schools in this prefecture, where the spread of infections has so far been under control. It only means that the venue for their group activities will temporarily be moved to the stadium."

    A senior official of the Kashima Municipal Board of Education commented, "I suppose infection risks have been reduced. We'd like to leave the games etched into the children's memory, as they are an opportunity that will perhaps never come to this prefecture again, while taking thorough measures against heatstroke and other conditions."

    (Japanese original by Taichi Nemoto, Kashima Local Bureau, and Kotone Nirasawa, Mito Bureau)

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