Can Olympics help Fukushima rebound?
“The people from that area have dealt with these issues for so long and so deeply, the Olympics are kind of a transient event,” said Kyle Cleveland, an associate professor of sociology at Temple University’s campus in Japan. “They’re going to see this as a public relations ploy.”
It was midafternoon in March 2011 when a 9.0 earthquake struck at sea, sending tsunamis racing toward land.
The initial crisis focused on the coastline, where thousands were swept to their deaths. But another concern soon arose as floodwaters shut down the power supply and reactor cooling systems at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.
Three of the facility’s six reactors suffered fuel meltdowns, releasing radiation into the ocean and atmosphere.
Residents within a 12-mile “exclusion zone” were forced to evacuate; others in places such as Fukushima city, about 38 miles inland, fled as radioactive particles traveled by wind and rain.
The populace began to question announcements from the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) about the scope of the contamination, said Cleveland, who is writing a book on the catastrophe and its aftermath.
“In the first 10 weeks, Tepco was downplaying the risk,” he said. “Eventually, they were dissembling and lying.”
The company has been ordered to pay millions in damages, and three former executives have been charged with professional negligence. Crews have removed massive amounts of contaminated soil, washed down buildings and roads, and begun a decadeslong process to extract fuel from the reactors’ cooling pools.
All of which left the area known as the “Fruit Kingdom” in limbo.
It is assumed that low-level radiation increases the chances of adverse health effects such as cancer, but the science can be complicated.
Reliable data on radiation risks are difficult to obtain, said Jonathan Links, a public health professor at Johns Hopkins University. And, with cosmic rays and other sources emitting natural or “background” ionizing radiation, it can be difficult to pinpoint whether an acceptable threshold for additional, lowlevel exposure exists at all.
In terms of athletes and coaches visiting the affected prefectures for a week or two during the Olympics, Links said the cancer risk is proportional, growing incrementally each day.
The Japanese government has raised what it considers to be the acceptable exposure from 1 millisievert to 20 millisieverts per year. Along with this adjustment, officials have declared much of the region suitable for habitation, lifting evacuation orders in numerous municipalities. Housing subsidies that allowed evacuees to live elsewhere have been discontinued.
But some towns remain nearly empty.
“People are refusing to go back,” said Katsuya Hirano, a UCLA associate professor of history who has who has spent years collecting interviews for an oral history. “Especially families with children.”
Their hesitancy does not surprise Cleveland. Though research has led the Temple professor to believe conditions are safe, he knows that residents have lost faith in the authorities.
“That horse has left the barn,” he said. “It’s not coming back.”
With infrastructure repairs continuing throughout the region, evacuee Akiko Morimatsu has a skeptical view of the Tokyo 2020 campaign.
“They have called these the ‘Reconstruction Games,’ but just because you call it that doesn’t mean the region will be recovered,” Morimatsu said.
Concerns about radiation prompted her to leave the Fukushima town of Koriyama, outside the mandatory evacuation zone, moving with her two young children to Osaka. Her husband, a doctor, remained; he visits the family once a month.
“The reality is that the region hasn’t recovered,” said Morimatsu, who is part of a group suing the national government and Tepco. “I feel the Olympics are being used as part of a campaign to spread the message that Fukushima is recovered and safe.”
This sentiment is balanced with other forces at work in Japanese culture, where the Olympics and baseball, in particular, are widely popular. Masa Takaya, a spokesman for the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee, insists that “sports can play an important role in our society.”
In Fukushima, a city of fewer than 300,000, colored banners fly beside the highway amid other signs of anticipation.
Elderly volunteers, plucking weeds from a flower bed at the train station, wear pink vests that express their support for the Games.
Sato, the Fukushima office director, remains optimistic.
“Everyone’s circumstances are different,” he said. “Maybe there will be some people who come back to Fukushima because of this.”
The Fukushima Azuma stadium will host baseball and softball at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Japan.