After the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster devastated Japan’s Fukushima prefecture, sports have provided a lifeline for the area. But is it ready – and is it safe – to host Olympic events?
The disaster also damaged the Fukushima name. Tourism declined. The rest of Japan shunned produce or materials from Fukushima. Almost seven years later, pockets of the prefecture – mainly in its capital city, also called Fukushima – are attempting to change its perception through sports. “We are looked at like Chernobyl,” says Saito Nobuyuki, who was born in Fukushima and now owns Sportsland, a sporting goods store in the city. “It’s difficult to change.”
Baseball player Akinori Iwamura is among those hoping to rehabilitate Fukushima’s name.
Iwamura will have a big stage to help bolster the area’s image when Fukushima Azuma Baseball Stadium, the home park of the Hopes, hosts Olympic Games in 2020. Iwamura sees in that another opportunity to inform the world about life beyond the disaster. “When they go back to their country, they can tell their impression to the local people so it will bring more people to come for tourism,” he says.
“The Japanese government wants to show the fake side of Fukushima,” says Hajime Matsukubo, secretary general for the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Centre in Tokyo. In his office, Matsukubo showed a copy of the Fukushima Minpo newspaper, which listed radiation levels of all the towns in Fukushima prefecture like box scores in a daily sports section.
Azby Brown, who works for Safecast, an organisation that helps citizens independently measure environmental data like radiation levels, says Olympic visitors staying near the stadium for a week would probably not be exposed to higher-than-normal radiation levels. But he also disagreed with the government’s messaging about Fukushima.
“Communities have been destroyed, there has been no real accountability, the environmental contamination will persist for decades and will require vigilance and conscientious monitoring the entire time,” Brown said in an email. “People who accept the radiation measurements and make a rational decision to return still live with a nagging concern and doubt, as if they’re living in a haunted house.”