2020 ‘Re­cov­ery Olympics’ not for all

Torch re­lay kicks off in Fukushima, but city still re­cov­er­ing af­ter 2011 dis­as­ters

Orlando Sentinel - - NEWS - By Mari Ya­m­aguchi and Stephen Wade

FUTABA, Ja­pan — The torch re­lay for the Tokyo Olympics will kick off in Fukushima, the north­ern pre­fec­ture dev­as­tated al­most nine years ago by an earth­quake, tsunami and the sub­se­quent melt­down of three nu­clear re­ac­tors.

They’ll also play Olympic base­ball and soft­ball next year in one part of Fukushima, al­low­ing Tokyo or­ga­niz­ers and the Ja­panese gov­ern­ment to la­bel th­ese games the “Re­cov­ery Olympics.” The sym­bol­ism re­calls the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, which show­cased Ja­pan’s reemer­gence just 19 years af­ter World War II.

But tens of thou­sands still haven’t re­cov­ered in Fukushima, dis­placed by nu­clear ra­di­a­tion and un­able to re­turn to de­serted places like Futaba.

Time stopped in the town of 7,100 when dis­as­ter struck on March 11, 2011.

Laun­dry still hangs from the sec­ond floor of one house. Ver­min gnaw away at once intimate fam­ily spa­ces, ex­posed through shat­tered win­dows and man­gled doors. The des­o­la­tion is deep­ened by Ja­panese tidi­ness with shoes wait­ing in door­ways for ab­sent owners.

“This re­cov­ery Olympics is in name only,” Toshi­hide Yoshida said. He was forced to aban­don Futaba and ended up liv­ing near Tokyo. “The amount of money spent on the Olympics should have been used for real re­con­struc­tion.”

Olympic or­ga­niz­ers say they are spend­ing $12.6 bil­lion on the Olympics, about 60% public money. How­ever, an au­dit re­port by the na­tional gov­ern­ments says over­all spend­ing is about twice that much.

The gov­ern­ment has spent $318 bil­lion for re­con­struc­tion projects for the dis­as­ter-hit north­ern pre­fec­tures, and the Fukushima plant de­com­mis­sion­ing is ex­pected to cost $73 bil­lion.

The Olympic torch re­lay will start in March in J-Vil­lage, a soc­cer sta­dium used as an emer­gency re­sponse hub for Fukushima plant work­ers. The re­lay goes to 11 towns hit by the dis­as­ter, but by­passes Futaba, a part of Fukushima that Olympic vis­i­tors will never see.

“I would like the Olympic torch to pass Futaba to show the rest of the world the re­al­ity of our home­town,” Yoshida said. “Futaba is far from re­cov­ery.”

The ra­di­a­tion that spewed from the plant at one point dis­placed more than 160,000 peo­ple. Futaba is the only one of 12 ra­di­a­tion-hit towns that re­mains a vir­tual no-go zone. Only day­time vis­its are al­lowed for de­con­tam­i­na­tion and re­con­struc­tion work, or for for­mer res­i­dents to check their aban­doned homes.

The town has been largely de­con­tam­i­nated and vis­i­tors can go al­most any­where with­out putting on haz­mat suits, though they must carry per­sonal dosime­ters — which mea­sure ra­di­a­tion ab­sorbed by the body — and sur­gi­cal masks are rec­om­mended. The main train sta­tion is set to re­open in March, but res­i­dents won’t be al­lowed to re­turn un­til 2022.

Futaba Mi­nami Ele­men­tary School has been un­touched for al­most nine years and feels like a mau­soleum. No one died in the evac­u­a­tion. But school bags, text­books and note­books sit as they were when nearly 200 chil­dren rushed out.

Kids were never al­lowed to re­turn, and “Fri­day, March 11,” is still writ­ten on class­room black­boards along with due dates for the next home­work as­sign­ment.

On the first floor of the va­cant town hall, a hu­man­size “daruma” good-luck fig­ure stands in dim evening light at a re­cep­tion area. A piece of pa­per that fell on the floor says the doors must be closed to pro­tect from ra­di­a­tion.

It warns: “Please don’t go out­side.”

The words in red.

“Let us know if you start feel­ing un­well,” Muneshige Osumi, a for­mer town spokesman told vis­i­tors.

About 20,000 peo­ple in Ja­pan’s north­ern coastal pre­fec­tures died in the mag­ni­tude 9.0 earth­quake and re­sult­ing tsunami. Waves that reached 50 feet killed 21 peo­ple around Futaba, shred­ding a seaside pine for­est pop­u­lar for pic­nics and brac­ing swims.

No­body per­ished from the im­me­di­ate im­pact of ra­di­a­tion in Fukushima, but more than 40 el­derly pa­tients died af­ter they were forced to travel long hours on buses to out-of-town evac­u­a­tion cen­ters. Their rep­re­sen­ta­tives filed crim­i­nal com­plaints and even­tu­ally sent for­mer Tokyo Elec­tric Power Com­pany ex­ec­u­tives to court. They were ac­quit­ted.

When Tokyo was awarded the Olympics in 2013, Prime Min­is­ter Shinzo Abe as­sured In­ter­na­tional Olympic Com­mit­tee mem­bers are un­der­lined that the nu­clear dis­as­ter was “un­der con­trol.” How­ever, crit­ics say the gov­ern­ment’s ap­proach to re­cov­ery has di­vided and si­lenced many peo­ple in the dis­as­ter-hit zones.

Un­der a de­vel­op­ment plan, Futaba hopes to have 2,000 peo­ple — in­clud­ing for­mer res­i­dents and new­com­ers such as con­struc­tion work­ers and re­searchers — even­tu­ally liv­ing in a 1,360-acre site.

Yoshida is un­sure if he’ll re­turn. But he wants to keep ties to Futaba, where his son in­her­ited a fill­ing sta­tion on the main high­way con­nect­ing north­ern Ja­pan to Tokyo.

Osumi, the town spokesman, said many for­mer res­i­dents have found new homes and jobs and the ma­jor­ity say they won’t re­turn. He has his own mixed feel­ings about go­ing back to his moun­tain­side home in Futaba. The num­ber of res­i­dents reg­is­tered in the town has de­creased by more than 1,000 since the ac­ci­dent, in­di­cat­ing they are un­likely to re­turn.

“It was so sad to see the town de­stroyed and my home­town lost,” he said, hold­ing back tears.

“My heart ached when I had to leave this town be­hind,” he added.

Stand­ing out­side the Futaba sta­tion, Mayor Shi­rou Izawa de­scribed plans to re­build a new town. It will be friendly to the el­derly, and a place that might be­come a ma­jor hub for re­search in de­com­mis­sion­ing and re­new­able en­ergy. The hope is that those who come to help in Fukushima’s re­con­struc­tion may stay and be part of a new Futaba.

“The word Fukushima has be­come glob­ally known, but re­gret­tably the sit­u­a­tion in Futaba or (neigh­bor­ing) Okuma is hardly known,” Izawa said, not­ing Futaba’s re­cov­ery won’t be ready by the Olympics.

“But we can still show that a town that was so badly hit has come this far,” he added.

To show­case the re­cov­ery, gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials say J-Vil­lage — where the torch re­lays be­gins — and the Azuma base­ball sta­dium were de­con­tam­i­nated and cleaned. How­ever, prob­lems keep pop­ping up at JVil­lage with ra­di­a­tion “hot spots” be­ing re­ported, rais­ing ques­tions about safety head­ing into the Olympics.


A class­room is clut­tered with be­long­ings left by stu­dents as they rushed out af­ter the March 2011 earth­quake and tsunami.

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