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Olympic torch relay excluded recovering Fukushima areas due to organizers' disapproval

An area which was part of the original torch relay route proposed by the Fukushima Prefecture town of Futaba, but was later excluded, is seen in the town on May 25, 2021. The town had requested a route in which the torchbearer would come running from the road shown in the photo, before returning to JR Futaba Station. The hands of the clock of the Japan Agricultural Cooperatives (JA) building remain stopped at around 2:46 p.m. -- the time the earthquake occurred. (Mainichi/Daisuke Wada)

TOKYO -- The Tokyo Games organizing committee disapproved of the original course for the Tokyo Olympic torch relay proposed by the Fukushima prefectural town of Futaba, which featured areas still recovering from damage in the 2011 Great East Japan earthquake, tsunami and ensuing nuclear disaster, a Mainichi Shimbun probe has found.

    The relay kicked off in Fukushima Prefecture in March. While the Japanese government and the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games bill the games as a "Recovery Olympics," the town of Futaba, which suffered extensive damage from the 2011 disasters, was unable to realize its wish of having the public see the municipality as it is.

    The original route proposed by Futaba was dismissed by organizers on the grounds that the evacuation orders issued following the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station accident had not yet been lifted, among other reasons, according to inquiries to the Fukushima Prefectural Government and other sources.

    The torch relay that took place in the town on March 25 instead followed a route that included the square in front of JR Futaba Station, which has undergone reconstruction work as part of recovery efforts. Town residents questioned the choice of the course, with comments such as "The updated route makes it seem as if the whole town has recovered."

    The Tokyo Metropolitan Government and Japanese Olympic Committee expressed their intention to submit a bid to host the 2020 Olympics just four months after the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. Then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also touted a "Recovery Olympics" during the 2013 general meeting of the International Olympic Committee, which decided the host city for the games. Following such events, it was decided in July 2018 that the torch relay would kick off in Fukushima Prefecture.

    Among the 12 municipalities that were subject to evacuation orders following the nuclear disaster, the town of Futaba is the only municipality in the prefecture to which residents have not been able to return. The town's education board said that it proposed a route covering around 600 meters, where torchbearers would first leave JR Futaba Station -- which was renovated as a symbol of the town's recovery and whose surrounding area was exempted from evacuation orders in March 2020 -- and proceed along a town road lined with damaged shops, shrines, and business facilities to show that the area is still in the middle of ongoing recovery, before returning to the station square.

    This section of the town road, which stretches for some 160 meters, is still under an evacuation order, but was designated by the national government as a zone that can be freely entered during the day, out of consideration for plans to lift the evacuation order and have residents return in the spring of 2022. An expert investigative committee issued a report stating that "radiation levels have been adequately lowered," and the section of the road originally planned for inclusion in the relay had undergone decontamination.

    The Tokyo Olympic torch relay takes place in front of JR Futaba Station in the town of Futaba, Fukushima Prefecture, on March 25, 2021. (Mainichi/Naoaki Hasegawa)

    In January 2020, the town of Futaba presented its proposal for the torch relay course to the Fukushima Prefectural Government's Olympic and Paralympic promotion office. The office serves as the administrative branch of the prefectural executive committee headed by Fukushima Gov. Masao Uchibori, which was in charge of discussing the relay route in the prefecture. Approval was then given for the original proposal by the administrative office.

    However, when the prefecture's Olympic and Paralympic promotion office discussed the course with the Tokyo organizing committee, which had the final say on the route, the latter refused to accept the course. Officials said a precondition for including an area in the relay course was that evacuation orders had been lifted, according to the promotion office. The organizing committee also apparently cited concern for the safety of spectators in the town's proposal, pointing out the damaged buildings along the roadside.

    The Futaba Municipal Board of Education, which was responsible for creating the route, commented, "We had no impression there was a danger. There weren't any buildings that looked as if they would collapse onto the roadside envisioned for the relay course."

    The chief priest of a shrine along the originally proposed route commented, "Evacuees from the town have gathered many times for annual festivals and other occasions, and there have been no roadside accidents."

    The prefectural government's Olympic and Paralympic promotion office said that it "repeatedly negotiated with the organizing committee to somehow make the route chosen by the town a reality." Regarding the organizing committee's decision to reject the town's proposal, the promotion office said, "It seems they were unable to decide on permissible radiation dose levels, measured in microsieverts. It may be that the zones where evacuation orders had been lifted were places whose inclusion the committee could justify if it were asked for the basis of the selection."

    Futaba mayor Shiro Izawa expressed his disappointment, and told the Mainichi Shimbun, "We wanted people throughout Japan to see parts of the town that have not yet recovered, and let them know that Fukushima's recovery has a long way to go." Regarding the selection of the torch relay's route, the mayor said, "I wonder if it were not possible for them to have been a little bit more flexible in their thinking and the way things unfolded. If some sort of problem occurs, it becomes a matter of who should be held accountable, so the organizing committee was probably unable to say 'yes' to the town's chosen route. The committee is high-strung."

    When asked about the background of events and reasons behind the rejection of the town's proposed routes, the organizing committee answered in an email, "The current route was chosen following discussion with the executive committee."

    (Japanese original by Yoshikazu Takeuchi, Tokyo City News Department)

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