With the starting point for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games torch relay set to begin in Fukushima Prefecture, which was hit hard by the March 2011 quake, tsunami and nuclear disaster, anticipation is growing in the prefecture and other areas ahead of the two-year countdown mark to the games on July 24.
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The torch relay for the 1964 games wrapped the entire country up in passion for the event, but the 2020 relay looks to become an even bigger phenomenon, making its way through all 47 of Japan's prefectures.
The Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games established a committee and began selecting the route and the starting point in February 2017. From the outset, the committee had planned to pay special attention to disaster-hit areas, but the relay was to begin in late March, and in the northern Japanese regions of Hokkaido and Tohoku, the temperature would still be low.
Moving from the southernmost prefecture of Okinawa northward with the blooming spring cherry blossoms was the most logical choice, and there were southwestern areas of the country such as Kumamoto Prefecture, which was hit by a double earthquake disaster in April 2016, and other areas around the country that could represent Japan's resilience. There were arguments as to whether or not the message of recovery should be limited to just the areas hit by the March 2011 triple disaster.
Still, the committee decided to begin the route in Fukushima Prefecture to dispel any doubts that the image of "disaster recovery" held up by the organizing committee and the government would be obscured. The idea of holding the games as a sign of recovery had been put forward since the International Olympic Committee general assembly met in September 2013 when the Tokyo games were decided, but the proposal ended up being a double-edged sword -- foreign media were still pointing out the risks of contaminated water leaking from the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, however, who traveled to where the assembly was held in Buenos Aires, explained that the "situation was under control."
Despite the government's commitment to a games in the spirit of recovery, the people of Japan have not been so fast to warm up to the idea, asking what the games will actually do for the reconstruction of the regions hit by disasters. With personnel, financial resources and facilities lacking, there were quite a few disaster-hit municipalities that viewed things like "host town" registration to plan exchanges with participating countries and regions as well as the hosting of pre-game training camps as burdensome. In November 2016, the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee decided that Fukushima Prefecture would be the venue for the baseball and softball events of the games, and in April this year, it was decided that the Olympic flame from Greece would be exhibited in the three prefectures on the northeastern Pacific coast hit hardest by the March 2011 disasters -- Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate -- as a "flame of recovery."
"We have to create some substance to the image of the games as an event of recovery," said Minister in charge of the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games Shunichi Suzuki, emphasizing the need to connect the activities of the games to the regions they hoped to uplift.
In the relay path announced on July 12, the torch will not travel through the three prefectures of Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate at once, but rather travel south from Fukushima to do away with worries about the March temperatures in the northern region of Japan. So far, there have not been any complaints.
Mayor Hiroshi Kameyama of the heavily hit city of Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecture, just north of Fukushima, who fought for his city to be the relay starting point, released a comment stating, "We're all a part of the Tohoku region, and I hope that having Fukushima Prefecture, where there are still quite a number of victims of the disaster, decided as the starting point for the relay will provide strength in moving toward reconstruction."
(Japanese original by Kazuhiro Tahara, Tadashi Murakami and Akira Matsumoto, Sports News Department)