One of the few things that the Olympics do well, aside from putting cities in significant debt that can take decades to pay off, is symbolism. It was on display last year in Pyeongchang when the North and South Korean delegations marched into the opening ceremonies for the Winter Olympics, and if the Japanese government has its way, 2020 will bring its own moment of symbolic healing.
The Tokyo 2020 organizing committee has embraced symbolism—as well as the traditional cost overruns—and have dubbed their Games the “Reconstruction Olympics.” The “reconstruction” they’re referring to is the effort to rebuild the part of the country that was devastated by the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and subsequent Fukushima nuclear reactor meltdown. More than 16,000 people were killed in the disaster and approximately 160,000 people evacuated the region, with the Japanese government providing subsidies and assistance to those who fled.
To prove that the region is well on its way to recovery, the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee announced that the baseball and softball competitions would be held in Fukushima, a move that the IOC approved. To add another does of symbolism to this, the Olympic torch relay will begin in Fukushima, too.
In 2017, when the venues for baseball and softball were announced, Aileen Mioko-Smith, an activist with Green Action Japan, noted, “It’s fine for athletes and spectators to go to Fukushima for a couple of days to compete, but the Japanese government is using this to claim that everything is back to normal and that the evacuees should go back to their homes.”
There is hope among current residents of the prefecture that sports, especially events like the Olympics, can help to change the global image of the area that is largely synonymous with nuclear disaster. Akinori Iwamura, who was the starting second baseman for the Tampa Bay Rays in the 2008 World Series, is one of the people who is hopeful that sports and the Olympics can help reverse the fortunes of the prefecture where he is the manager of the Fukushima Hopes.
“When they go back to their country, they can tell their impression to the local people of their countries so it will bring more people to come for tourism,” he said of Olympic baseball coming to Fukushima.
The Japanese government has already ended subsidies for those “voluntarily” evacuated, meaning that they weren’t in the immediate evacuation zone but left because they lived in Fukushima prefecture and were worried about the radiation levels and the environmental fallout. One of those evacuees, Kazuko Nihei, told Agence France Presse that she refuses to return to Fukushima City with her daughters even though she’s enduring financial hardship since the government ended her housing subsidy. The reason she refuses to return is because she’s concerned about long term health impacts. The government is only offering screenings for thyroid cancer, but Nihei wants a “comprehensive annual health check” for the returnees.
The Japanese government insists that it is safe to return, but as the article notes, they’ve moved the goalposts a bit when it comes to acceptable radiation levels:
It changed the level from 1 millisievert (mSv) a year to 20 and says that level of exposure carries far lower cancer risks than smoking or obesity and “can be comparable to the stress from evacuation”.
The Japanese government plans to end all financial assistance to evacuees in 2021, which will mark a decade since the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown.
Noriko Matsumoto, another evacuee, is critical of the government for eliminating subsidies while at the same time spending a lot of money to prepare the area for the Games. “I think there are other things that should be done before hosting the Olympics,” she said. While her comment is perhaps a specific reaction to bringing Olympic events to a region still reeling from a natural and nuclear disaster, in it you can detect a more universal criticism of the Olympics that has been repeated by activists all over the world—Why are we spending money on the Olympics when we have much more important ways to spend our limited resources?
Though most cities that are considering hosting an Olympic Games are not dealing with a nuclear disaster, many have significant problems that will, at best, be papered over if they host the Olympics and at worst, will be exacerbated by the Games.
I have no idea when is the right time for people who were forced to flee to return. Or if they should. Those are personal decisions that only the survivors themselves can make. But any timeline for recovery—physical, emotional, and spiritual—should not be dictated by the demands of a global sporting event, no matter how powerful the symbolism of it all may be.