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Tiny Field In Tokyo Marathon Another Casualty Of Japan's Coronavirus Response

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

What's a major international marathon without the crowds? Well, it was the Tokyo Marathon this past weekend. It's normally one of the largest marathons in the world, but due to COVID-19, organizers announced earlier this month that only the most elite athletes would be allowed to participate. Japan is canceling events big and small as it tries to curb the disease ahead of the 2020 Olympics. NPR's Kat Lonsdorf has more.

KAT LONSDORF, BYLINE: It was possibly the quietest marathon ever. A kind of eerie silence hung around the starting line. Helicopters for the TV broadcast circled overhead, and a few hundred people were waiting to see some of the top runners in the world come around the bend. Suddenly, they appeared.

(APPLAUSE)

LONSDORF: And just seconds later, they were gone. That was it. Only about 200 athletes were allowed to compete in this year's marathon. Normally, this race has around 38,000 runners from across the globe. Seventy-three-year-old Kanai Tadashi held up his smartphone, a shocked look on his face.

KANAI TADASHI: (Speaking Japanese).

LONSDORF: "I didn't even get a photo," he said. "There were too few runners."

TADASHI: (Speaking Japanese).

LONSDORF: Tadashi says he comes to this race every year. And this year, he says...

TADASHI: (Speaking Japanese, laughter).

LONSDORF: ...It feels like a funeral. Organizers told people to stay home and watch the race on television to avoid spreading the virus. But it was beautiful out - not a cloud in the sky with a light breeze. It was a great day for, well, a marathon.

(APPLAUSE)

LONSDORF: Further on in the race in the normally bustling Ginza shopping district, it got even quieter.

(APPLAUSE)

LONSDORF: The sidewalks have all been blocked off to allow for spectators to watch, but there's only a handful of spectators - maybe a couple dozen people on either side of the sidewalk. And as runners run by, the people who are here start to cheer.

(APPLAUSE)

LONSDORF: All across Japan, public gatherings have been discouraged. Sporting events are playing out to empty stadiums behind closed doors. Concerts from big J-pop arena venues to smaller indie shows have been cancelled. Museums are closed. Tokyo Disneyland is shut for weeks. But there have also been shifts to daily life, too. In a hugely controversial move, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe closed all schools until April, leaving many parents scrambling.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Japanese).

LONSDORF: In the famously packed subway stations in Tokyo, announcements ask passengers to consider avoiding rush hour. And tens of thousands of employees have been told to work from home, something very new in such a company-focused culture.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

SHINZO ABE: (Speaking Japanese).

LONSDORF: At a hastily called press conference over the weekend, Abe said the next two weeks were crucial in the fight against the virus. Critics argue these measures are all for optics to keep the international community satisfied that Japan can still host the Olympics this July. Officials here have repeatedly said the games will go on as planned. All of this is hitting at a time when Japan's economy, the third largest in the world, is already in trouble. Economists worry coronavirus fears could push it into recession.

(APPLAUSE)

LONSDORF: Back at the marathon, Makiko Kitami and her 6-year-old daughter Satomi were cheering extra loud to try to fill the silence. One single runner passed by.

SATOMI KITAMI: (Speaking Japanese).

LONSDORF: "Keep going," yelled Satomi. "Fight."

KITAMI: (Speaking Japanese).

LONSDORF: That's encouragement a lot of people in this country could probably use right now.

Kat Lonsdorf, NPR News, Tokyo, Japan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.