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.
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.
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.