Ahead of the opening ceremony for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, some sports began holding events from July 21, with softball in Fukushima Prefecture, and women's soccer played in Miyagi Prefecture.
Both northeast Japan prefectures were hard-hit by the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. Both are symbols of the "recovery Olympics." But with coronavirus infections spreading, the luster has come off that title.
Initially, Japan's Olympic bid had no clear cause behind it. Recovery efforts following the 2011 disaster then emerged as a way for Japan to appeal its case to the world. A dimension of political expediency cannot be denied.
At the 2013 International Olympic Committee (IOC) Session where Tokyo was awarded hosting rights, then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe emphasized Japan's safety, and assured delegates that the situation at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s disaster-stricken Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station was "under control." But his explanations were heavily criticized as divorced from reality.
In some ways, the Olympics have instead hindered recovery. Construction firms' prioritization of Olympic-related projects ahead of the games led to labor shortages and rocketing materials costs.
Ahead of the full start to the Olympics, areas where the disaster struck are rife with complex emotions.
In the Olympic torch relay, the Fukushima Prefecture town of Futaba made requests for the route to include a section that made the disaster-stricken areas of the town visible. But the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games declined on the basis that evacuation orders had yet to be lifted from the area. An opportunity to show the reality of recovery was lost.
On spectator controls, too, it has been decided that four prefectures in the capital region including Tokyo will not allow audiences to events. But opinions in the disaster-hit prefectures differed.
Fukushima Prefecture took a concerned view of the spreading infections, and opted to ban spectators. But while the mayor of the Miyagi prefectural capital Sendai called for no audiences, the events there will be held with viewers after the prefectural governor's position won out. He argued, "We're taking on the very important agenda of the 'recovery Olympics.' We can show the entire world the gratitude of this prefecture's people."
What can't be forgotten is the role sport has played in the areas' recovery.
Affected regions have established a team in Japan's Independent Professional Baseball League as well as Japan Professional Basketball League teams. The city of Kamaishi in Iwate Prefecture was enlivened by the match it hosted during the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
In baseball, former Yankee Masahiro Tanaka, who was the ace pitcher with the Sendai-based Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles when they won the postseason Nippon Series championship for the first time, has returned from MLB and will stand on the mound as an Olympic representative for Japan.
Ten years on from the disaster, recovery is still in progress. We hope to have good expectations for the light sport shines on these regions.