Tokyo being billed as ‘Recovery Olympics’ – but not for all

FUTABA, Japan (AP) — The torch relay for the Tokyo Olympics will kick off in Fukushima, the northern prefecture devastated almost nine years ago by an earthquake, tsunami and the subsequent meltdown of three nuclear reactors.

They’ll also play Olympic baseball and softball next year in one part of Fukushima, allowing Tokyo organisers and the Japanese government to label these games the ‘Recovery Olympics’. The symbolism recalls the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, which showcased Japan’s reemergence just 19 years after World War II.

But tens of thousands still haven’t recovered in Fukushima, displaced by nuclear radiation and unable to return to deserted places like Futaba.

Time stopped in the town of 7,100 when disaster stuck on March 11, 2011.

Laundry still hangs from the second floor of one house. Vermin gnaw away at once intimate family spaces, exposed through shattered windows and mangled doors. The desolation is deepened by Japanese tidiness with shoes waiting in doorways for absent owners.

A Tokyo 2020 banner stands in front of the Azumi Baseball Stadium, a venue for baseball and softball at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics in Fukushima. PHOTO: AP

“This recovery Olympics is in name only,” Toshihide Yoshida told The Associated Press. He was forced to abandon Futaba and ended up living near Tokyo. “The amount of money spent on the Olympics should have been used for real reconstruction.”

Olympic organisers say they are spending USD12.6 billion on the Olympics, about 60 per cent public money. However, an audit report by the national governments says overall spending is about twice that much.

The government has spent USD318 billion for reconstruction projects for the disaster-hit northern prefectures, and the Fukushima plant decommissioning is expected to cost USD73 billion.

The Olympic torch relay will start in March in J-Village, a football stadium used as an emergency response hub for Fukushima plant workers. The relay goes to 11 towns hit by the disaster, but bypasses Futaba, a part of Fukushima that Olympic visitors will never see.

“I would like the Olympic torch to pass Futaba to show the rest of the world the reality of our hometown,” Yoshida said. “Futaba is far from recovery.”

The radiation that spewed from the plant at one point displaced more than 160,000 people. Futaba is the only one of 12 radiation-hit towns that remains a virtual no-go zone. Only daytime visits are allowed for decontamination and reconstruction work, or for former residents to check their abandoned homes.

The town has been largely decontaminated and visitors can go almost anywhere without putting on hazmat suits, though they must carry personal dosimeters — measures radiation absorbed by the body — and surgical masks are recommended. The main train station is set to reopen in March, but residents won’t be allowed to return until 2022.

A main-street shopping arcade in Futaba is lined by collapsing store fronts and sits about four kilometres from the nuclear plant, and 250 kilometers north of Tokyo. One shop missing its front doors advertises Shiseido beauty products with price tags still hanging on merchandise. Gift packages litter the ground.

When Tokyo was awarded the Olympics in 2013, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe assured International Olympic Committee members that the nuclear disaster was “under control”. However, critics say the government’s approach to recovery has divided and silenced many people in the disaster-hit zones.

Under a development plan, Futaba hopes to have 2,000 people – including former residents and newcomers such as construction workers and researchers – eventually living in a 550-hectare site.

Yoshida is unsure if he’ll return. But he wants to keep ties to Futaba, where his son inherited a filling station on the main highway connecting northern Japan to Tokyo.

Osumi, the town spokesman, said many former residents have found new homes and jobs and the majority say they won’t return. He has his own mixed feelings about going back to his mountainside home in Futaba.

“My heart ached when I had to leave this town behind,” he added.

Mayor Shirou Izawa described plans to rebuild a new town. It will be friendly to the elderly, and a place that might become a major hub for research in decommissioning and renewable energy. The hope is that those who come to help in Fukushima’s reconstruction may stay and be part of a new Futaba.

“The word Fukushima has become globally known, but regrettably the situation in Futaba or (neighbouring) Okuma is hardly known,” Izawa said.

“But we can still show that a town that was so badly hit has come this far,” he added.

To showcase the recovery, government officials say J-Village – where the torch relays begins – and the Azuma baseball stadium were decontaminated and cleaned. However, problems keeping popping up at J-Village with radiation “hot spots” being reported, raising questions about safety heading into the Olympics.

The baseball stadium is located about 70 kilometres west of Futaba, J-Village is closer, about 20 kilometres away along along the coastal area.

The radioactive waste from decontamination surrounding the plant, and from across Fukushima, is kept in thousands of storage bags stacked up in temporary areas in Futaba and Okuma.