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1964 Olympic torch bearer hopes 2020 runners will spur hope in Fukushima

Masao Yabuki runs with the Olympic torch in his hand in Shirakawa, Fukushima Prefecture, in this Sept. 30, 1964 file photo. (Photo courtesy of Masao Yabuki)
Masao Yabuki holds a torch used in the 1964 Tokyo Games, in Yabuki, Fukushima Prefecture. (Mainichi)

YABUKI, Fukushima -- A 71-year-old man here who served as a torch bearer in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics looks to see young people from this prefecture encourage residents affected by the nuclear disaster through their torch relay ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Games.

Fukushima Prefecture was on July 12 named the starting point for the 2020 Olympic torch relay in Japan. 1964 runner Masao Yabuki, a resident of the prefectural town of Yabuki, hopes that the relay will play a part in boosting disaster recovery, as touted by the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee.

"I hope the torch relay will uplift the spirits of those affected by the disaster, if only a little," said Yabuki, a former Japan Agricultural Cooperatives employee.

Yabuki was a third-year student and a member of a track team at what is now Shirakawa Jitsugyo High School in Shirakawa in southern Fukushima Prefecture, when he was chosen to run in the city, alongside two teammates. "I was probably picked as I was a third-year student back then. I was just lucky," he recalled.

He was assigned to run through an approximately 2-kilometer zigzag course from the entrance to the castle town's downtown area to the city hall. He practiced by holding a metal bat high up in the air with his right hand while running.

On Sept. 30, 1964, he covered the designated stretch with the real Olympic torch in his hand as some 100,000 spectators filled the streets.

"My mind was completely blank. I couldn't even hear cheers from spectators as I was so absorbed," he said.

Nearly half a century later, Yabuki's house was partially damaged due to a massive earthquake registering a lower 6 on the Japanese seismic intensity scale of 7 in his area on March 11, 2011.

In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster triggered by the quake and ensuing tsunami, temporary housing units for evacuees from the nuclear disaster were built in the town of Yabuki. Seven years on, people who are still unable to return to their hometowns are living in those housing units.

Last year, Yabuki drove through areas along the Pacific Coast stricken by the tsunami and nuclear disasters. What he saw were rice paddies and fields long left unattended and almost empty streets, even in areas where nuclear evacuation orders had already been lifted. In other areas where such orders remained in place, towns were overgrown with wild grass and trees. Such landscapes saddened Yabuki.

The Fukushima Prefectural Government will establish an organizing committee for the 2020 Games to select the specific torch relay path. The governments of 15 cities, towns and villages in the prefecture -- which were damaged by the 2011 tsunami and ordered to evacuate residents due to the nuclear crisis -- are calling for their streets to be included in the relay route.

While Yabuki wishes to once again become a torch bearer himself, even if to cover just 100 meters, he believes that the upcoming torch relay should be one that can uplift local residents by covering the coastal "Hamadori" region of Fukushima, not the mid-inland "Nakadori" region including the town of Yabuki, to embody the spirit of the "disaster recovery Olympics" by conveying the current situation to the rest of the country.

(Japanese original by Shuji Ozaki, Fukushima Bureau)

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