MINAMISOMA, Fukushima -- Katsunobu Sakurai, former mayor of Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture, who was in office during the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster, firmly stated during a recent interview with the Mainichi Shimbun that it is unfeasible to dub the Tokyo Olympics a "sign of humanity's triumph over the novel coronavirus," as suggested by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Sakurai, who was born in the city of Minamisoma himself, served two terms as mayor for his hometown between 2010 and 2018. Sakurai was picked as one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people in 2011 following the disaster at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.
The following is an excerpt of Sakurai's remarks to the Mainichi Shimbun on July 3.
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Following the postponement of the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spoke of holding next year's Olympics as a "sign of humanity's triumph over the novel coronavirus." Up until now, the prime minister may have thought that presenting the event with the title "disaster recovery" from the Great East Japan Earthquake would gather worldwide attention, but now he is trying to replace this slogan amid the global spread of the novel coronavirus. However, the concept of a "recovery Olympics," let alone a "coronavirus Olympics" has no chance of success.
The torch relay for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which was eventually canceled due to the coronavirus outbreak, was just a performance put on for show. The relay was set to start at the J-Village national soccer training center in Fukushima Prefecture, which was used as a base to handle the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster (after the Great East Japan Earthquake). However, the relay route was limited to areas that have been tidied up, and did not show the real nature of the disaster-hit areas. "Recovery" means restoring an environment to a state where people can return. At the very least, if residents have returned and can once again live in a state similar to before the disaster, this may be called a recovery. But the government is trying to show how far the recovery has progressed, when in fact there is much left to be achieved.
There is also talk that flowers grown in the disaster-stricken areas will be used for victory bouquets awarded to Olympic medalists, but would this actually help boost the recovery overall? In Fukushima Prefecture, baseball and softball matches for the Olympic Games are to be held in the prefectural Azuma ballpark in the suburbs of the city of Fukushima, but this site has almost no connection to the coastal areas of the prefecture (that were damaged in the tsunami following the magnitude-9.0 temblor). It appears that it is nothing more than a performance (by the Japanese government).
No matter how much you tout the games as a sign of recovery, the overall picture of only Tokyo prospering while the recovery of the disaster-hit areas in the Tohoku region remains undone will not change. I've been to Tokyo many times, and saw that there were more crane trucks at the construction site of the athletes' village than in the disaster-hit areas. It was obvious at a glance where the national government was placing its resources.
It's not that I am disapproving of the Olympics itself. It is a festivity celebrating peace, and I am aware that Japan had been long active in its bid to host the games. However, it doesn't make sense when you start calling it a "recovery Olympics." The inconsistency becomes clear when labeling the games an event "contributing to the recovery of the disaster-hit areas."
During the Japan's bid to host the 2020 Olympics, Prime Minister Abe described the polluted water generated by the nuclear disaster as being "under control," and then Tokyo Games bid committee chairman Tsunekazu Takeda called Tokyo "safe," as it is 250 kilometers away from Fukushima. Don't these very statements run counter to a "recovery Olympics"?
At the time, I was confronted by an elderly resident of my city who asked, "It's a dangerous place here, isn't it? Why don't you let us live in Tokyo?" A "recovery Olympics" should by nature be something that residents of the disaster-stricken areas can feel good about holding, but the authorities' perceptions are inconsistent with those in such areas.
If a "recovery Olympics" in the true sense of the term is to be held, it will by restoring the coastal regions of disaster-hit areas to a state capable of hosting the events, such as marathons.
During the 2019 Rugby World Cup, matches were held in the city of Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, in northeastern Japan, (an area also hit hard by the tsunami) as a way to underscore the recovery. This must have been a large source of emotional strength for local residents. However, Fukushima Prefecture still has zones that people cannot even enter. It just doesn't seem like it is in any condition to hold the Olympics. I can only presume that the large impact of the nuclear disaster is still being underestimated.
The Japanese government has prepared for the Olympics while upholding the "disaster recovery" label, even though a recovery is far from reality. It is superficial to declare a recovery with no actual progress. The government is now talking of an Olympics that could be a sign of humanity's triumph over the pandemic, but vaccines have not yet been put into practical use, and the world has not yet been freed from the risk of infection. There is no chance of success by trying to box in reality to meet the labels the government upholds. The idea of a "coronavirus Olympics" may also likely end as a mere fantasy.
(Original Japanese interview by Jun Kaneko, City News Department)