A leading member of Japan’s governing party said on Thursday that the country would consider canceling the Tokyo Olympics if rising coronavirus cases were not brought under control.
But as his comments lit up the internet, he quickly walked them back, issuing a statement saying that he had been speaking hypothetically and that “our party has not changed its support for holding a safe and worry-free Games.”
Yet the comments were the first public indication that the government is considering canceling the Games, in the face of widespread public discontent about their organization and growing concerns about the pandemic. (Polls indicate that more than 70 percent of Japanese believe the Games should be delayed again or called off entirely.)
Infection rates in Japan, although still relatively low, have climbed in recent weeks, raising fears that the country could soon face a “fourth wave” of cases as it prepares for the Games. They are set to begin in late July, a year after they were postponed because of the pandemic.
Speaking to a television news program, Toshihiro Nikai, the secretary general of the governing Liberal Democratic Party and one of the most powerful politicians in Japan, said that “if the situation becomes more difficult, we’ll have to completely cancel” the Olympics, according to local media reports. The interview was prerecorded and has not yet aired.
Hours later, as headlines about his comments were splashed across the news media, Mr. Nikai sought to soften the message with a statement reaffirming his commitment to the Games.
So far, Japan has avoided the worst of the pandemic, recording fewer than 10,000 deaths — an achievement that many attribute to ubiquitous mask-wearing and an effective public health campaign.
But the country has been slow to roll out vaccines, with shots for elderly citizens only beginning earlier this month.
In the last several weeks, newer and more contagious variants of the coronavirus have driven up case counts in major cities, prompting tough restrictions in parts of Tokyo and other municipalities. Experts are concerned that the Olympics, which are expected to welcome thousands of athletes from more than 200 countries, could become a superspreading event.
The government has reiterated that it intends to put on “safe” Games as a symbol of national and global resilience, although in a modified form that bans, among other things, spectators from abroad.