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Azuma Stadium in Fukushima will host at least one baseball game and one softball game (Image: The Asahi Shimbun)

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics begin on July 24 next year.

But the first sporting event will take place two days earlier, in Fukushima, when preliminary matches of women’s softball begin  at Fukushima Azuma Baseball Stadium.

Azuma Stadium is about 90 kilometers from Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, the site of Japan’s gravest nuclear disaster since World War II.

It was 8 years ago today when a 9.1 magnitude earthquake rattled the Pacific coast side of northern Japan (Tohoku), triggering enormous waves of water inland, both resulting in approximately 16,000 deaths, and leading to nuclear meltdowns in the Fukushima reactors as the tsunami overwhelmed the power plants. The nuclear fallout turned communities around Daiichi into ghost towns, and the prefecture into a national  pariah.

The decision by the organizers to bring sporting events to Tohoku during the Olympics was made with the intent to drive investment back to the area, and build a sense of hope to the region.

“This is a great opportunity to bring the spirit of the Olympic Games to this region, which was affected by the tsunami in 2011,” IOC leader Thomas Bach told a press conference in Pyeongchang, South Korea when this was announced on March 17, 2017. “It is also an expression of solidarity of the Olympic movement with the people in this region who are suffering from the consequences of this disaster.”

Baseball infielder, Akinori Iwamura, who played many years for the Yakult Swallows as well as the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, was a member of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles when the earthquake and tsunami hit, continuing to play for a minor league squad called the Fukushima Hopes through 2016. His hope too was that the region would be revitalized, and Iwamura was a vocal cheerleader, according to this New York Times article.

“I call myself a missionary,” Iwamura said. “Even though it’s a negative way many people know the name of Fukushima, we have to change it into a positive way.”

Iwamura believed that hosting softball games during the Olympics at Azuma Stadium, where his Fukushima Hopes play, would build the area’s image and attract tourism. “When they go back to their country, they can tell their impression to the local people of their countries so it will bring more people to come for tourism,” he said.

Azuma to Daiichi map

However, there are those who not only consider such thoughts wishful thinking, they consider it a cover up, as this article from The Independent points out.

Immediately after the announcement in March that Fukushima would host baseball, anti-nuclear activists denounced the move. They argued that it created a false impression that Fukushima had returned to normal and glossed over the remaining hardships faced by an estimated 120,000 residents who still cannot – and may never – return to their homes.

Kazuko Nihei has two daughters, and she fled her home in Fukushima City in 2011, and has sworn never to return. The government has provide financial assistance to people evacuated from the terribly affected areas, particularly those in the area where nuclear radiation fears are greatest. The government ended that assistance for people like Nihei, and so she struggles to make ends meet, according to Channel News Asia.

“I have to work with every ounce of energy,” said Nihei, who works seven days a week to help keep the family afloat.

Why won’t she return with her family to Fukushima? The Japanese government has worked hard to decontaminate the area so that families can return. But the fears of radiation in the environment remain.

…the programme has not swayed everyone, with a poll conducted in February by the Asahi Shimbun daily and Fukushima local broadcaster KFB finding that 60 per cent of Fukushima region residents still felt anxious about radiation.

Nihei worries about “various health risks for children, not only thyroid (cancer) but others including damage to their genes. If there was a comprehensive annual health check, I might consider it, but what they are offering now is not enough, it only concentrates on thyroid cancer,” she told AFP.

Then there is the contaminated water used as a coolant in the nuclear reactors – a million tons of water that contain radioactive elements. Processing the contaminated water, as well as the ongoing dismantling of the nuclear plants, are long,  difficult and costly tasks – the New York Times states it would take 40 years and cost nearly USD200 billion.

Additionally, there is a risk to keeping the radioactive water in the thousand or so water tanks on land, near the power plants – the number will rise and the space to store the water is limited. And the tanks could crack, particularly if another major earthquake hits Tohoku.

fukushima water tanks

The Japanese government hopes to purify that water to the point where the water can be disposed of in the Pacific Ocean. But, as one can imagine, that idea doesn’t sit well with people who live there, particularly those in the fishing industry.

“That would destroy what we’ve been building over the past eight years,” said Tetsu Nozaki, head of the Fukushima Prefectural Federation of Fisheries Co-operative Associations. Last year’s catch was just 15 percent of pre-crisis levels, partly because of consumer reluctance to eat fish caught off Fukushima.

The Olympics will come and go. But the disturbing legacy of 3.11 in Fukushima will linger on.

Construction of the National Gymnasium_AP

It’s already a year behind schedule.

When the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee decided to renege on its agreement to Zaha Hadid to build the National Stadium for the 2020 Olympics, the decision resulted in a second search for an architect, and a plan that had a year lopped off the timeline.

So while many people have faith in the Japanese construction industry to make heroic efforts to get the stadium ready in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, it comes with an extra challenge – the fact that unemployment is at its lowest unemployment rate since 1995 – 2.8%. While politicians in America and Europe are looking for easy ways to produce thousands if not millions of new blue-collar jobs, Japan cannot find enough people to keep up.

The aftermath of the 2011 tsunami, aka 3.11, is still impacting Japanese society today, as construction work in the Tohoku region of Japan sucks up a large percentage of the construction worker pool. So construction companies are rushing ahead with the talent they have. In the productivity equation, that should mean longer hours for the workers.

But Japanese corporations have been warned by the government that they cannot work their people to death. Compensation claims for cases of “karoshi” (worked to death) have been steadily increasing over the years as the public realizes there are limits to the loyalty one can show one’s company or one’s leaders.

Recently, Olympic Minister Shunichi Suzuki was at the construction site of the National Stadium and said that while the work is continuing as scheduled thanks to the workflow efficiency, he warned that “working conditions must meet legal standards.”

He cited the case of a 23-year old worker who had been working on the construction site of the National Stadium, and who had committed suicide in July. According to the Mainichi, he was working well over the limit of 80 hours of overtime per month, although the records showed that he was under the limit. According to this article, the worker’s mother said that her son would routinely wake up at 4:30 am and get home at 1 am. The Japan Times stated that the suicide note of the worker stated he was “physically and mentally pushed to the limit.”

The rock of the 2020 deadline. The hard place of the worker shortage. Is there a way out of this squeeze?

Houses are seen destroyed in Kumamoto_Telegraph
Houses are seen destroyed in Kumamoto. Credit: Taro Karibe/Getty

On April 14, 2016,  some five weeks ago, an earthquake with a magnitude of 6.2 hit Kumamoto City in the western part of Japan, followed two days later by a stronger earthquake of a magnitude of 7.0. Close to 50 people have been reported killed, while over a thousand people were injured.

While this pales in relation to the triple disaster of March 11, 2011 when an earthquake in the northern part of Japan resulted in devastating tidal waves and radiation leaks from a devastated nuclear power plant, there are still thousands of people living in shelters in Kumamoto, down from a peak of over 180,000 a few days after the earthquakes.

In modern day Japan, large earthquakes often result in significant hardship for large numbers of people. And just as it was a concern in 2016, it was equally a concern in 1964. On September 3, 1964, The Mainichi Daily News published an article noting the 41st anniversary since the Great Kanto Earthquake. On that day, a magnitude 7.9 earthquake struck Tokyo, impacting areas as far and wide as Yokohama and surrounding prefectures of Chiba, Kanagawa and Shizuoka.

For those who have seen the very large and very heavy Great Buddha statue in Kamakura, this 84,000 kg statue moved nearly a meter due to the earthquake. Death estimates from this earthquake range from 100,000 to 180,000. Over half a million homes were destroyed and nearly 2 million were left homeless. These casualties were the result not only of the initial earthquake, but also due to subsequent fires and tsunami.

Because the Great Kanto Earthquake occurred so long ago, there have long been underlying fears of another one hitting Tokyo any day. This is true today as much as it was in 1964. In fact, the headline for the Mainichi Daily News article was “If Kanto Quake Hits Now, More than 23,000 May Die.”

Earthquake Casualty Estimates_Mainichi Daily News_Sept 1964
The Mainichi Daily News, September 3, 1964

According to the article, police and fire department officials released a report estimating possible damage due to a similarly sized earthquake occurring in 1964. These authorities stated that some 43,000 wooden houses in Tokyo would collapse. The article states, quite clinically, that “over 23,000 people would be killed or would become missing by the initial collapse of residences. Also 40,000 people would be injured, seriously or slightly.”

But the article goes on to say, casualties “would quickly increase if subsequent disasters, such as tidal waves, fires and traffic mishaps take place.” And in a major earthquake in a major metropolis like Tokyo at the time, that was likely. The article continues by stating that fires in over 300 parts of Tokyo would break out, the ability to deal with all those fires being inadequate. If a tsunami hit Tokyo’s water front, some 1.3 million people would be in the way. Half the major roadways and highways, more than half of telephone communication capability, a few major bridges and about 100 railway bridges, as well as hundreds of places storing combustible materials would all be damaged.

And in fact, an earthquake did hit Tokyo on October 1, 1964, only 9 days prior to the commencement of the Tokyo Olympics.

When will the next big one hit Tokyo? It’s probably best not to dwell on that…..

Alejandro Chaskielberg photo 1
The members of a family sit in the place where their house stood before being destroyed by the tsunami of March 11, 2011, Otsuchi town, Iwate Prefecture, Japan_photo art created by Alejandro Chaskielberg

I was living in Seattle. I was called out of an important meeting because my wife called, moaning into the phone about intense pain in her stomach. I told her I’d rush home, but it was 5pm and Seattle rush-hour traffic was like everywhere else: not so good.

It took forever to get home, and when I did, she wasn’t there. As it turned out, she called 911, got carted off in an ambulance, and was transported to a hospital. I saw the note and took off for the hospital. A few hours hooked up to an IV later, she was told that the food poisoning was no longer an issue, so we hopped in a taxi.

We got home at 10 pm, May 10, 2011. In Japan, it was 3pm, May 11, approximately 14 minutes after a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck just off the coast of northeastern Japan. We turned on the TV and watched the horror unfold on CNN, doing all we could to contact friends and family in Tokyo, where the effects of the earthquake were also significant.

So much has been written about the events and aftermath of 3.11’s triple disaster: the earthquake, the tsunami and the nuclear meltdown at Daichi Nuclear Power Station.

One thing I learned a couple of years ago shocked me. It hit me on the treadmill one morning, while reading on my Kindle the book, “Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival“, by Financial Times editor, David Pilling. Chapter 14, “Fukushima Fallout”, began with these words:

Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Station and Odaka
The sort distance from my ancestral home town and the Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Station.

It looked like any other provincial Japanese town. There was the Shiga Hair Salon, with its red, white and blue barber’s pole, offering cuts and ‘iron perms’. Next door was the Watanabe Cake Shop, doing business since 1990 and housed in a two-storey mock Tudor building. Outside the nearby Jokokuji temple, a tiny granite stone Buddha figurine stood at the entrance, dressed in a weather-worn pink ceremonial shawl. The traffic lights clicked on and off, from red to orange to green and back again. Korean pop music erupted from unseen speakers, breaking what had been a fetid silence. The only thing missing in the town of Odaka, located less than ten miles north of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant, was people.

The Shiga Hair Salon! That was the home of my grandfather’s younger sister, a very short drive to the birthplace of my grandfather! In August, 1988, in search of my roots, I was informed by the Odaka city office that I had relatives at the Shiga Hair Salon. So I walked on over, rehearsed an opening line in Japanese in my head, and walked in. After fumbling through an explanation in poor Japanese, showing them the documents that traced my past to this neighborhood over 150 years earlier, and that the hair salon’s founder, Chozo Shiga, was married to my grandfather’s sister….well we were suddenly family! I was ushered into their home, shown pictures, fed sushi and told stories. Later that day, they took me to the original home of my grandfather and ancestors, where the owner still cared for the tombstones of my ancestors.

Needless to say that time in 1988, and that moment when I learned my ancestral hometown was a ghost town, were both emotional jolts. Still today, I do not know what has happened to my relatives in the Shiga Hair Salon, although I’m pretty sure that the ancestral burial ground has been swept away as it was fairly close to the coast.

But my pain pales in comparison to those who truly suffered five years ago today.

When the demolition of the National Olympic Stadium began last year, and they needed a place to put the Olympic Cauldron, it was decided that the cauldron should be displayed in Tohoku. So on June 27 of 2015, the cauldron was unveiled in Ishinomaki, Miyagi, an area hard-hit by the effects of the tsunami. Athens Olympian and gold medalist in the hammer throw, Koji Murofushi, lit the cauldron, shining a light on Tohoku.

Koji Murofushi
Koji Murofushi lights the Olympic cauldron on June 27 at a park in Ishinomaki, Miyagi

The Olympic cauldron is expected to stay in Tohoku until 2020, when it would be returned to Tokyo to resume it’s spot in the new National Olympic Stadium.

Like the Olympic flame, which represents eternal peace and hope, the 2020 Olympics represent an opportunity to show that Japan is back, and the hopes and dreams of Tohoku are alive and well.