With a theme of "hope lights our way," the Olympic torch relay is underway and will continue until the flame makes it to the Opening Ceremony of the Tokyo Games and lights the cauldron on July 23.

About the torch

The torch being used for the Tokyo Games pays homage to the cherry blossom, an important flower in Japanese culture. Its shape includes five "petals" (the same as a cherry blossom) from which the flames emerge, and the start of the relay in late March coincides with when cherry blossoms hit their peak bloom.

The torch is made out of aluminum using the same technology that is used to produce Japan's bullet trains. About 30% of the aluminum in each torch has been recycled from temporary housing units that were constructed in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster.

Although it's called a "torch relay," the torch does not actually get passed from person to person. Instead, participants transfer the flame from their torch to the next runner's torch. There are expected to be about 10,000 torchbearers total during the relay.

The torch design for Tokyo 2020
Note the five petals at the top of the Tokyo 2020 torches.
Tokyo 2020

History of the Flame

The tradition of the Olympic flame dates back to the ancient Olympic Games in Greece, where a sacred flame burned at the altars of several gods. It became part of the modern Olympic tradition in 1928 when it appeared at the Amsterdam Games, but it wasn't until 1936 that the lighting ceremony and the torch relay were introduced.

Before each Olympics, the flame is produced during a ceremony in Olympia, Greece. Women dressed in ancient Greek robes use a parabolic mirror and the sun's rays to light a torch, which then begins the relay from Greece to the Olympic host city. Olympia was chosen as the location for this ceremony as a way to connect the ancient and modern Olympic Games together.

Although it's rare, in the event that a torchbearer's flame goes out, it can be relit using one of the backup lanterns that's always on standby. The backup flames come from the same lighting ceremony as the main flame.

In an Olympic first, the flame will be powered by hydrogen, which emits no carbon dioxide when burned, instead of gas during certain stages of this year's relay.

Suspension of the Tokyo 2020 relay

The Olympic flame was lit on March 12, 2020 at a ceremony without spectators in Olympia. As a precaution against COVID-19, the Greek portion of the torch relay was cancelled.

The flame was then taken to Japan, but two days before the Japanese leg of the relay was set to begin, organizers announced that the Tokyo Olympics would be delayed until 2021 due to the global pandemic.

With the torch relay suspended, organizers faced the unprecedented task of keeping the flame lit for the next year. It remained on display in Fukushima, where the relay was supposed to begin, for a few weeks before moving to a Tokyo Fire Department facility for safekeeping after coronavirus cases worsened. It was eventually relocated to the Olympic Museum in Tokyo, where it was on display for public viewing for two months in the fall.

“For the past year, as the entire world underwent a difficult period, the Olympic flame was kept alive quietly but powerfully,” Tokyo 2020 president Seiko Hashimoto reportedly said at the torch relay's opening ceremony. “The small flame did not lose hope, and just like the cherry blossom buds that are ready to bloom, it was waiting for this day.”

2021 Torch Relay Schedule

Following the year-long suspension, the Japanese leg of the torch relay finally began March 25 in Fukushima, an area that was devastated by the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster 10 years ago.

The torch will ultimately visit all 47 of Japan's prefectures, as it works its way south to the island of Okinawa before turning around and going north all the way to Hokkaido. From there, the torch will hit the home stretch as it makes its way back to the central part of the country where Tokyo awaits.

The schedule of when the torch will visit each prefecture is listed below. Relay plans will be modified as needed in each prefecture to comply with local COVID-19 protocols.

Prefecture Date
Fukushima March 25-27
Tochigi March 28-29
Gunma March 30-31
Nagano April 1-2
Gifu April 3-4
Aichi April 5-6
Mie April 7-8
Wakayama April 9-10
Nara April 11-12
Osaka April 13-14
Tokushima April 15-16
Kagawa April 17-18
Kochi April 19-20
Ehime April 21-22
Oita April 23-24
Miyazaki April 25-26
Kagoshima April 27-28
Okinawa May 1-2
Kumamoto May 5-6
Nagasaki May 7-8
Saga May 9-10
Fukuoka May 11-12
Yamaguchi May 13-14
Shimane May 15-16
Hiroshima May 17-18
Okayama May 19-20
Tottori May 21-22
Hyogo May 23-24
Kyoto May 25-26
Shiga May 27-28
Fukui May 29-30
Ishikawa May 31-June 1
Toyama June 2-3
Niigata June 4-5
Yamagata June 6-7
Akita June 8-9
Aomori June 10-11
Hokkaido June 13-14
Iwate June 16-18
Miyagi June 19-21
Shizuoka June 23-25
Yamanashi June 26-27
Kanagawa June 28-30
Chiba July 1-3
Ibaraki July 4-5
Saitama July 6-8
Tokyo July 9-23