TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan braced for potentially chaotic protests at the Olympic torch relay as it arrived under tight security on Friday, similar to those that have disrupted some of the flame’s other stops around the world.
While China has touted the relay as a “journey of harmony” in the run-up the Beijing Games in August, the flame has been a magnet for anti-China protests over human rights and Beijing’s crackdown in Buddhist Tibet after deadly riots last month.
At stops in London and Paris, torch-bearers were knocked by protesters, while in the last leg in Canberra, scuffles broke out between Tibetan demonstrators and Australian Chinese.
In Nagano, central Japan, the venue for the next leg of the torch relay on Saturday, media said the torch would be guarded by up to 4,000 police, with riot police and another 100 regular officers set to shield torch-bearers in two rows, shrouding the runners from sight.
They will be joined by two Chinese “flame attendants”, although Japan has made it clear Chinese paramilitary guards who have been criticized elsewhere as being heavy-handed in their guarding of the torch would not be welcome.
After flying into Haneda Airport in Tokyo, the flame was carried down steps from a plane by a Chinese flame attendant in blue and white track suit, to the tarmac where Japanese and Chinese officials waited, along with some people waving Chinese flags.
TV footage later showed a bus said to be carrying the torch headed for Nagano, 179 km (112 miles) northwest of Tokyo, escorted by police cars.
More than 10,000 Chinese Australians staged the biggest pro-Beijing rally of the torch relay in Canberra on Thursday, drowning out Tibetan demonstrators in a sea of red Chinese flags with calls of “One China”.
Beijing had hoped the torch’s progress on its global relay would be a symbol of unity in the run-up to the Beijing Games. But it has turned into a public relations nightmare with China’s crackdown in Tibet at the core of relay protests.
Preparations for the route in Nagano, host of the Winter Games in 1998, were marred last week by a Buddhist temple’s withdrawal from hosting the start of the relay, partly because of followers’ anger over China’s actions in Tibet.
The main building of the iconic temple was later vandalized, with white circles spray-painted onto wooden columns and a door.
The three corporate sponsors for the Japanese leg of the relay also decided against sending vehicles to escort the 18.7 km (12 mile) run, with some worried about getting in the way of heavy security.
In Nagano, organizers will restrict the start and finish areas to staff and media, shutting out spectators.
Local shop owners planned to clear streets of flower pots, while some residents, complaining that the spirit of the event had been spoilt, said they would keep children at home.
Pro-Tibet groups were expected to hold a prayer service before the relay on Saturday at the historic Zenkoji temple that withdrew from the event, reading the names of those who died in the recent unrest in Tibet.
They will then congregate for a peaceful protest near the relay, which will pass through shopping streets and an ice-skating rink used during the 1998 Winter Games.
Media said 2,000 Chinese students from across Japan would also travel to Nagano by bus, carrying Chinese and Japanese flags and wearing matching T-shirts in a show of support for the relay.
“We are not going to protect the flame. We are going to welcome the flame,” one of the students told Asahi TV.
The relay will kick off with Senichi Hoshino, the popular manager of Japan’s national baseball team, who will be sent off by an elementary school marching band performance.
The torch heads for its next stop Seoul after the Nagano leg on Saturday night.
The European Parliament has urged EU leaders to boycott the opening ceremony at the Games unless China starts talks with the Dalai Lama. In retaliation, there have been Chinese calls to boycott European, especially French, businesses.
EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson spoke out against boycott calls and said they served only to “deepen differences, create massive resentment and make dialogue much harder”.
In Washington, Deputy U.S. Secretary of State John Negroponte called on China to stop vilifying the Dalai Lama and instead start talks with the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader.
(Additional reporting by Linda Sieg; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)
"Countdown to Beijing Olympics" blog at: blogs.reuters.com/china)