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UPDATE 8-Asahi daily, an official Tokyo Olympics partner, urges Games cancellation

(Adds comments from Tokyo 2020 CEO)

TOKYO, May 26 (Reuters) - Japanese newspaper publisher Asahi Shimbun, an official partner of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, called for the Summer Games to be cancelled in an editorial on Wednesday, citing risks to public safety and strains on the medical system from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Several polls have shown the majority of the public is opposed to holding the Games this summer, concerned about tens of thousands of athletes and officials descending on a country where vaccinations have proceeded slowly.

Doctors' associations have protested holding the Games, investors have talked up the benefits of shelving them here, and maverick businessmen such as Masayoshi Son have called for cancelling the games.

“We ask Prime Minister (Yoshihide) Suga to calmly and objectively assess the situation and decide on the cancellation of the event this summer,” said the paper, a left-leaning daily often critical of Suga’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

“We are far from a situation in which everybody can be confident they will be ‘safe and secure’,” the paper added, invoking the government mantra about the Games.

In a statement later on Wednesday, the Asahi Shimbun said it remained committed to being an official partner of the Tokyo 2020 Games and that its editorial division had its independent mission.

The company would “continue its activities as an official partner while monitoring the COVID-19 situation,” the statement said.

Tokyo 2020 CEO Toshiro Muto shrugged off the editorial, saying that “it is only natural for all sorts of media organisations to have all sorts of opinions” about the issue, at a news briefing held on Wednesday evening following a Tokyo 2020 executive board meeting.

He said the board did not discuss the possibility of a cancellation or postponement, instead discussing the importance of communicating how safe the Olympics would be to the public.

Olympic organisers have insisted that the Games can go ahead as planned.

Speaking ahead of the board meeting, Tokyo 2020 President Seiko Hashimoto said only one coach tested positive for coronavirus over the course of four test events with almost 7,000 visitors from some 50 countries.

The events “are evidence that our current coronavirus precautions are effective”, she said.

“Even baseball matches are being held currently with spectators. Why not go ahead with the Games?,” Kozo Yamamoto, a heavyweight politician of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, said in an interview with Reuters.

Although Japan has been spared the coronavirus ravages of overseas nations, it has struggled to control a fourth wave of infections across the country.

Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike said on Wednesday she will ask that the current state of emergency, originally set to be lifted at the end of May, to be extended for “about another month,” mere weeks before the Games is scheduled to start on July 23.

Just over 5% of the nation has received vaccinations, and it has recorded about 719,000 infections and 12,394 deaths.

Although the majority of the population remains unvaccinated, the Japan Olympic Committee is expecting to start inoculating the Japanese Olympic delegation from June 1.

About 1,600 people, including athletes and coaches, will receive Pfizer shots which were donated by Pfizer separately from the national supply of vaccines.

A professor of public health and adviser to the New Zealand government said on Tuesday that going ahead with the Games was "absurd" here.

The United States on Monday issued an advisory against travel to Japan, but Japanese officials said it would not affect the Games, and the White House said on Tuesday it stood by the decision to hold the Games as planned.

The Australian softball team is set to arrive in Japan on June 1 for a pre-Olympic training camp in Gunma, a prefecture about 150 km northwest of Tokyo. (Reporting by Chang-Ran Kim, Elaine Lies, Ju-min Park, and Sakura Murakami; editing by Gerry Doyle, Jason Neely and Louise Heavens)

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