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Tokyo 2020 Olympic torch to be carried by ex-leprosy patient, centenarian athlete

Yasuji Hirasawa is seen at the national sanitorium Tama Zenshoen in Higashimurayama, Tokyo, on Dec. 17, 2019. (Mainichi/Kotaro Adachi)
Shoji Tomihisa, center, is celebrated by Miyoshi Mayor Satoshi Fukuoka, far left, and others after being named as one of the runners in the Olympic torch relay, at the Miyoshi Municipal Government in Hiroshima Prefecture on Dec. 17, 2019. (Mainichi/Akihiro Nakajima)

Among the Olympic torch relay runners announced on Dec. 17 are a former leprosy patient and a centenarian masters athletic record holder who survived World War II. With different histories and backgrounds, they are determined to carry the Olympic flame in their respective legs before it arrives at its final destination at the National Stadium.

Yasuji Hirasawa, 92, head of the resident association of the national leprosy sanatorium Tama Zenshoen in the western Tokyo suburb of Higashimurayama, is set to run on the sanatorium's grounds with the torch. While the circumstances surrounding leprosy, also known as Hansen's disease, have changed in Japan between the two Tokyo Olympics of 1964 and 2020 with the abolishment of the controversial Leprosy Prevention Law in 1996, former patients still face discrimination. Determined, Hirasawa said, "I want to make this an opportunity for people to understand that leprosy is curable."

Born in Koga, Ibaraki Prefecture, north of Tokyo, Hirasawa developed leprosy symptoms at the age of 13 and a year later moved to Tama Zenshoen. He has recently been active as a storyteller about the disease, speaking about his experiences before children at elementary schools and on other occasions.

In July this year, the Japanese government chose not to appeal a Kumamoto District Court ruling that ordered the state to compensate the families of former leprosy patients for the discrimination they suffered under a decades-old segregation policy. Hirasawa, however, stresses that discrimination and prejudice "still exist in society."

In the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Hirasawa watched the marathon on a road in the suburban Tokyo city of Chofu. He cheered on Kokichi Tsuburaya, a Japanese athlete who finished third in the race. While former leprosy patients from the United States and others were allowed to watch the event at the National Stadium, their Japanese counterparts were forced to stay outside the stadium under the now-defunct Leprosy Prevention Law.

"The Olympics were happening within my reach, but I wasn't allowed in. I was frustrated," Hirasawa recalls.

Fifty-six years later, he will bear the torch and run inside the facility on July 14, 2020, with other residents and schoolchildren from the neighborhood.

"Taking up the role of a runner in the torch relay will help comfort the spirits of my friends who were left to die disappointed. It's a heavy cross to bear, but I want to carry the torch with their thoughts in my heart," Hirasawa said.

Shoji Tomihisa is seen competing in the men's 60-meter dash in the 100-104 age group at the 2017 Chugoku Region Masters Athletics Championship in Tottori Prefecture, where he set a Japanese record. (Photo courtesy of Tomihisa's coach Hiromi Sadasue)

Another person tapped as an Olympic torchbearer is Shoji Tomihisa, a 102-year-old athlete of the Hiroshima Prefecture city of Miyoshi who was exposed to radiation after the 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

"As long as I'm running (in the relay), I'm focusing on finishing my leg without thinking about my age," Tomihisa told a news conference held at the Miyoshi Municipal Government on Dec. 17.

Tomihisa was born on Awaji Island in the western Japan prefecture of Hyogo. At the age of 21, he was drafted to the Imperial Japanese Army, and went through a life-and-death situation in China. After returning to Japan, he got a job at the now-dismantled Japanese National Railways. On Aug. 6, 1945, soon after the atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Hiroshima that day, he entered the city from Miyoshi Station to join rescue operations, exposing himself to radiation as a result.

After retirement, Tomihisa didn't particularly play any sport, but he was recommended to try track and field at the age of 97 by his friend and osteopathic physician Hiromi Sadasue, who now coaches Tomihisa.

Tomihisa started running "for health purposes" and now leads a very orderly life, waking up at 4 every morning and training regularly. In 2017 when he was 100, Tomihisa participated in the Chugoku Region Masters Athletics Championship held in Tottori Prefecture on the Sea of Japan coast, setting a Japanese record of 16:98 for the men's 60-meter dash in the 100-104 age group.

"I'm blessed that I'm not sick or have any injuries. I will get my muscles back in shape and participate in the relay," Tomihisa told the news conference. He added, "I was determined to survive somehow after I was exposed to radiation. I want to show everyone an example on how to run (in the relay)."

(Japanese original by Kotaro Adachi, Tama General Bureau, and Akihiro Nakajima, Hiroshima Bureau)

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