Photo/Illutration Pedestrians pass an Olympic monument near Nihonbashi bridge in Tokyo. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is taking his biggest gamble yet. He's betting that his decision to extend the COVID-19 state of emergency will prove to be salve that allows the capital to safely host the Olympic Games this summer with spectators in the stands.

By maintaining emergency curbs for nine prefectures, including Tokyo, until June 20, Suga clearly would like to believe he has a winning hand. Keeping restrictions in place until the last possible moment is aimed at avoiding another surge in COVID-19 cases before the Olympics and Paralympics are due to kick off in late July.

This latest extension, hardly embraced by a public already weary of having spent most of this year under anti-virus restrictions, will likely sow even more doubts about whether the Olympics should be held at all.

Opinion polls show that 70 percent or so of voters think the Olympics, already delayed by a year because of the pandemic, should be postponed again, especially as the nation is in the grip of a fourth wave of COVID-19 cases.

Suga was peppered with questions about the wisdom of holding the Olympics at such a critical time when he called a news conference May 28 to explain his decision to extend the state of emergency.

He pointed out that four test events have already been held without any problems.

“Preparations are being pushed forward,” he said, adding that concerns expressed by the public are receiving serious consideration.

One high-ranking administration official sounded a note of optimism by saying, “Once the infection numbers come down, the mood in society will increasingly turn up with the approach of the Olympics.”

A veteran lawmaker with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party insisted that “The mood in all of Japan will change as long as the event is held.”

Cancelling the Olympics is “not an option,” according to a close associate of Suga.

A key issue for administration officials appears to be whether the Olympics can be held with spectators in the stands. What is certain is that spectators from overseas will not be allowed into Japan.

As yet, a final decision on spectator numbers remains up in the air because of the various extensions of the state of emergency.

At her May 28 news conference, Seiko Hashimoto, the head of the Olympic organizing committee, said: “I believe the government will present its standards after (the state of emergency is lifted). We will have to think (about spectators) in line with those standards.”

Organizing committee officials are now mulling announcing a decision about spectators around June 20 when the state of extension is scheduled to end.

Hashimoto said in late April that she was prepared to hold the Olympics without fans in the stands.

A range of views about the Olympics emerged at a May 28 meeting of the government panel of experts dealing with the pandemic.

“It will be difficult to hold the event unless measures are taken to avoid having large numbers of people moving about,” Satoshi Kamayachi, an executive board member of the Japan Medical Association, told reporters afterward.

But Suga and other administration officials are keen to have spectators in the stands “even if capacity crowds are not allowed in,” according to several sources. This is because it would demonstrate that all of Japan was behind the holding of the event, they say.

“The future of the administration will depend on whether or not the Olympics are held,” said one LDP executive close to Suga.

A successful outcome will surely bolster Suga and the LDP's prospects in the Lower House election that must be held this autumn. The Olympics will also be a major point of contention in the Tokyo metropolitan assembly election scheduled for early July.

Even though holding the Olympics itself will depend on the infection situation, Suga appears to be steadfast in his confidence that COVID-19 cases can be brought under control by June 20.