By Michelle Ye Hee Lee and Julia Mio Inuma
They collected soil samples to measure radioactivity and developed their own method of decontamination from the fallout of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, destroyed after a devastating earthquake and tsunami in March 2011 that killed 16,000 peopleand forced 165,000 people from their homes.
They urged residents who fled their hometown Iitate to return home and help restore the village. But their community remains gutted.
And they wince at the prevailing theme of the Tokyo Olympics: “recovery.” Organizers stuck with the original packaging — aimed at showcasing how far the country had come since the 2011 disasters — even as the Games were delayed a year and are now underway inside a pandemic bubble with no spectators in the Tokyo area and athletes cocooned from the rest of Japan.
“It seems nothing more than just taking advantage of Fukushima for political reasons,” said Tao, 80, who lived in Hiroshima during the atomic bomb blast in 1945 and grew up witnessing its aftermath. “It was simply that adding this ‘recovery’ element made the Games more appealing.”
Food served inside the Olympic Village, where athletes reside, train and dine, uses ingredients from Tohoku, the coastal region struck by the 9.1-magnitude earthquake in 2011, which was so strong that it actually moved Japan’s largest island east by nearly eight feet. The move was designed to help dispel myths that food from areas affected by the disaster is unsafe.
Olympic officials broadcast a four-minute video showing how they had hosted community and arts projects for children in the Fukushima prefecture to learn about their history and the recovery process.
“We have been making various efforts to convey to the world the image of Japan’s recovery from the earthquake, along with our gratitude for the support we have received from the world,” Japan’s Olympics minister Seiko Hashimoto said in a media briefing after the Games opened.
There is deep distrust toward the Japanese government among residents who feel officials have not made a full public reckoning of the impacts of the disasters with coverups, denials and evasion.
“When the earthquake happened, the next day I wasn’t even aware of the impact of nuclear disaster,” said Kanno, 70, who returned to Iitate in 2017. “Eventually we learned that it was dangerous here and were told that we couldn’t go out or touch the soil. But in Iitate, since we all live on agriculture, to be told that we can’t touch the soil, it was truly shocking.”
Many evacuees have returned home across the Fukushima region, but others still live in housing units that were meant to serve as temporary shelters.
Sumio Konno, a former nuclear power plant worker, was on a business trip at a nuclear plant in a nearby region when the tsunami hit. After being trapped in the plant for four days, he got a hold of his family and joined his wife and son, then 5 years old, at a temporary evacuation site.
Konno, 56, said he was frustrated about the billions of dollars spent on hosting the Games, while families are still financially struggling.
“Why are they wasting all this money on a two-week sports festival, when all that money can be used here where it’s necessary, now more than ever with the pandemic?” Konno said.
The spectator ban has become particularly disappointing at Fukushima Azuma Baseball Stadium, the Olympic baseball and softball venue that was intended to serve as another symbol of recovery. Initially, officials planned to host a number of celebratory events around the stadium, inviting dignitaries to taste the region’s signature fruits, including peaches, pears and grapes.
Instead of throngs of fans filling the venue in baseball-loving Japan, the vast majority of seats in the stadium remained empty July 28 when the first official game was held. The stadium was so empty that organizers played ambient fan sounds to create the illusion of a crowd. Even the surrounding park, with tall, lush trees and a fountain, was closed off to the public.
“The mood I get is people aren’t really interested in the Olympics. And even if they were, they can’t even go anywhere near it,” said Konno, the former nuclear power plant worker.
Toshikatsu Watanabe, who runs a public relations company in Koriyama, a city in Fukushima prefecture, said he was initially excited about the Olympics because he saw it as a way to highlight Fukushima as a safe region with a vibrant culture and delicious produce — a change from its association with tragedy.
Watanabe recalled a recent comment by the U.S. softball coach praising Fukushima’s peaches, which he said were so delicious that he ate six of them in his hotel. Watanabe had hoped for so many observations like those about his region.
“With Fukushima associated so much with radiation, the Olympics would have been a great way to showcase the local culture and food,” said Watanabe, 69. “Especially people actually coming here from all over the world to then share their personal experiences back home.”
The Japanese government has said that it has maintained constant communications with residents and adapted to their needs over the years and that there are many residents who left their homes voluntarily even without an evacuation order.
Yet many Fukushima residents tell a different story of feeling abandoned and overlooked by the government and their lasting fears of lingering financial and health concerns from exposure to radiation, said Hiroko Aihara, an independent medical journalist and Fukushima native.
Those residents are worried that once the global spotlight of the Olympics is gone, they would be declared as “recovered” from the disaster, including residents who are bringing lawsuits against the Japanese government to demand more compensation for their displacement, Aihara said.
“By issuing the declaration on ‘completed reconstruction,’ reparations and trials that are currently underway will be abandoned, and the people of Fukushima prefecture will be ignored,” she speculated. “It makes clear that the government declares that ‘Reconstruction has been achieved because the Olympics have also been successful.’”
A column from the editorial board at one of Japan’s main newspapers, the Mainichi, noted that construction firms had prioritized Olympics-related projects over Fukushima recovery-related projects. It noted that one of the towns in Fukushima had requested that the torch relay pass through a section that remains disaster stricken but was rejected.
“An opportunity to show the reality of recovery was lost,” the editorial read.
“Even after the Olympics, their hard lives do not change and end,” said Aihara. “We and they cannot benefit from the economy with Tokyo 2020. Such conflicts have become complex emotions.”