TOKYO -- Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on Thursday began meeting with foreign dignitaries arriving for the Summer Olympics, with U.S. first lady Jill Biden among the first received ahead of Friday's opening ceremony.
Suga and his wife, Mariko, had dinner with Biden at the Akasaka Palace state guesthouse.
Biden's attendance at the opening ceremony is "extremely meaningful" for Japan-U.S. relations, Suga told the first lady, who expressed hope that the Games will be a success.
The exchange came at a time when Japanese corporate sponsors have declined to send senior executives to the opening ceremony.
Suga met with four other dignitaries Thursday, including World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Japan is making "every effort" to accelerate vaccination within its borders, Suga told Tedros. The prime minister also stressed the importance of investigating the origins of the coronavirus.
Suga met first with a delegation led by South Sudanese Vice President Rebecca Nyandeng De Mabior, telling the group of his determination to realize a safe and secure Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.
As of last week, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had expected 30 or so top-level dignitaries to arrive for the opening ceremony. Fewer than half are now likely to come. Some anticipated guests canceled at the last minute over coronavirus variant concerns.
With the reduced scheduling, Suga is not expected to speak with top-level VIPs on opening-ceremony day.
About 80 top dignitaries each attended the opening ceremonies in Beijing and London for the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. This shrank to 40 for the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, owing partly to political turmoil in Brazil. Even fewer are coming to Tokyo this time.
Dignitaries are being urged to avoid meeting in person with their countries' athletes. The Tokyo organizing committee has told dignitaries to limit the sizes of their entourages, with spouses generally not permitted either.
French President Emmanuel Macron will talk with Suga on Saturday. Paris will host the 2024 Summer Games, and it is customary for the leader of the next host country to appear at the current opening ceremony. In 2016, then-Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe memorably appeared as the video game character Mario at the closing ceremony of the Rio Olympics.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato touched on Suga's diplomatic flurry in a news conference Wednesday.
"With in-person diplomacy limited by the coronavirus crisis, those are precious opportunities to build personal relationships of trust," Kato said.
World leaders have often used the Games as an opportunity for direct talks. When Abe visited Russia for the Winter Olympics in 2014, he and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed a range of topics, including negotiations to finalize a bilateral peace agreement.
Leaders from the U.S., Germany and France did not attend Sochi's opening ceremony in protest of Russia's human rights record, among other frictions.
Abe also attended the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, meeting with President Moon Jae-in for an hour. Abe called on Moon to fulfill the 2015 bilateral agreement to resolve the wartime "comfort women" issue.
Moon had initially prepared to visit Japan for Friday's opening ceremony, a move that would have set the stage for his first face-to-face summit with Suga. But the South Korean leader ultimately canceled.