In the shadow of a disaster, Fukushima responds with 'play ball'

After the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster devastated Japan’s Fukushima prefecture, sports have provided a lifeline for the area. But is it ready – and is it safe – to host Olympic events?

Seth Berkman
Sunday 07 January 2018 15:09
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Fukushima Hopes at batting practice during a preseason camp
Fukushima Hopes at batting practice during a preseason camp

A sea of brightly coloured banners and advertisements decorated the Fukushima train station in early November to celebrate coming road races, and Fukushima United, the local football club.

There are new professional baseball and basketball franchises in the region, too. They carry inspirational names like the Hopes and the Firebonds, the latter signifying the spirit of a team connecting to the community, says 21-year-old basketball player Wataru Igari.

For an area with a growing interest in sports, the biggest boon came in March when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) approved Fukushima to host baseball and softball games during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Yet Fukushima remains defined by tragedy.

The 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami caused meltdowns and radiation leaks at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Devastation touched every corner of Fukushima prefecture; around 5,500 square miles. Among the population of nearly two million residents, more than 160,000 near the power plant fled or were evacuated, while an estimated 16,000 people died.

The disaster also damaged the Fukushima name. Tourism declined. The rest of Japan shunned produce or materials from Fukushima. Almost seven years later, pockets of the prefecture – mainly in its capital city, also called Fukushima – are attempting to change its perception through sports. “We are looked at like Chernobyl,” says Saito Nobuyuki, who was born in Fukushima and now owns Sportsland, a sporting goods store in the city. “It’s difficult to change.”

Baseball player Akinori Iwamura is among those hoping to rehabilitate Fukushima’s name.

Akinori Iwamura: ‘I call myself a missionary’

Iwamura was the starting second baseman for the Tampa Bay Rays in the 2008 World Series. He also won two World Baseball Classic championships with Japan and played in the Nippon Professional Baseball League for 13 years. Today, Iwamura, 38, is toiling at the lowest levels of organised baseball. He is the manager of the Fukushima Hopes, a semi-pro team whose games are sparsely attended.

“I call myself a missionary,” Iwamura says. “Even though it’s a negative way many people know the name of Fukushima, we have to change it into a positive way.”

Iwamura was preparing to play for the Rakuten Golden Eagles when the earthquake and tsunami struck. Although he is from Ehime prefecture in southern Japan, Iwamura says he felt it had become his “destiny” to help rebuild Fukushima after he retired. Among those who encouraged him, Iwamura says, was Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon, who was his coach with the Rays.

Iwamura will have a big stage to help bolster the area’s image when Fukushima Azuma Baseball Stadium, the home park of the Hopes, hosts Olympic Games in 2020. Iwamura sees in that another opportunity to inform the world about life beyond the disaster. “When they go back to their country, they can tell their impression to the local people so it will bring more people to come for tourism,” he says.

The stadium is in the capital, about 90 minutes from Tokyo by high-speed train and 55 miles west of the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The city did not sustain extensive damage as did towns closer to the plant and the coast, which concerns critics who believe the conditions of more seriously affected areas will be ignored because of the Olympics.

Immediately after the announcement in March that Fukushima would host baseball, anti-nuclear activists denounced the move. They argued that it created a false impression that Fukushima had returned to normal and glossed over the remaining hardships faced by an estimated 120,000 residents who still cannot – and may never – return to their homes.

Akinori Iwamura (front) and other members of the Fukushima Hopes with their heads bowed in prayer ahead of the start of the 2016 season

“The Japanese government wants to show the fake side of Fukushima,” says Hajime Matsukubo, secretary general for the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Centre in Tokyo. In his office, Matsukubo showed a copy of the Fukushima Minpo newspaper, which listed radiation levels of all the towns in Fukushima prefecture like box scores in a daily sports section.

Azby Brown, who works for Safecast, an organisation that helps citizens independently measure environmental data like radiation levels, says Olympic visitors staying near the stadium for a week would probably not be exposed to higher-than-normal radiation levels. But he also disagreed with the government’s messaging about Fukushima.

“Communities have been destroyed, there has been no real accountability, the environmental contamination will persist for decades and will require vigilance and conscientious monitoring the entire time,” Brown said in an email. “People who accept the radiation measurements and make a rational decision to return still live with a nagging concern and doubt, as if they’re living in a haunted house.”

When Japan was awarded the 2020 Olympics in September 2013, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe assured the IOC that “the situation is under control” in Fukushima. Four years later, Brown says, public infrastructure projects in destroyed areas have been delayed because construction companies became too focused on gaining Olympic-related work around Tokyo.

Masao Uchibori, governor of the Fukushima prefecture, contended that the area was showing notable progress in reconstruction. Uchibori cited the continual reopening of tourist sites in the area and the growing influence of sports on civic pride. He added that the rebuilding of contaminated areas and a declining population cannot be overlooked, calling these contrasting aspects the “light and shadow” of Fukushima.

“At this moment, I cannot find any negative point,” to holding Olympics events in Fukushima, Uchibori says, “but I would like to work in cooperation with the organising committee and the central government in order to make people think it was good to hold the events in Fukushima.” Uchibori adds that “rumours” of Fukushima’s condition contribute to the shadow over the prefecture.

Large swaths of Fukushima remain uninhabitable, and it has been estimated that cleanup at the plant will take up to 40 years and cost almost $200bn (£150bn). Still, some residents see hope in the Olympics.

Tokyo governor Naoki Inose and Tokyo 2020 bid committee members celebrate winning the right to host the 2020 Olympic Games

“If the Olympics don’t happen in Fukushima now, the image of Fukushima won’t change for a long time,” says Aya Watanabe, a student at Fukushima University who interned in Houston during the summer, and saw the impact the Astros baseball team’s World Series victory had on morale in the hurricane-stricken city. “It’s a very big chance for Fukushima to change the prospects.”

While teams like the Hopes and Firebonds are still relatively new, their players have already seen how sports can be helpful in Fukushima’s recovery.

Deon Jones, who played college basketball at Monmouth University, is in his first year with the Firebonds. His mother initially worried about his living in Fukushima, but he has enjoyed playing here, learning about the backgrounds and hardships of local teammates. Several times a week, players hold sessions at local schools. A team spokesperson says Firebonds home games draw about 2,000 fans.

“You’re playing for a little bit more than basketball,” Jones says. “You’re playing for everyone in Fukushima.”

And then there’s baseball, Japan’s national pastime. After Tokyo was awarded the 2020 Olympics, a strong push was made to reintroduce baseball specifically for those games because of its history and popularity among young people in Japan. Participation has fallen in Fukushima since the 2011 tsunami. Atsushi Kobari, director of the Fukushima High School Baseball Federation, has tracked the declining enrolment of high school players over the last six years.

“It’s definitely due to the disaster at the nuclear plant,” Kobari says.

Miwako Kurikama, whose son Ryota plays baseball for Fukushima Commercial High School, was evacuated after the tsunami. Ryota’s primnary school permanently closed. At times, Kurikama drove 90 minutes away just to find fields where her son could practice.

On a recent Sunday morning, Kurikama watched him in a scrimmage with his high school teammates at Shinobugaoka Baseball Stadium in Fukushima. She was joined by six other mothers sitting behind the home plate. They shared snacks and kept score on a chalkboard, laughing and cheering in unison during run-scoring hits.

Kurikama has known some of the players since the first year of school, before her son’s closed. Having them all together again seemed cathartic, familial.

Nearby at the baseball stadium, little leaguers from Fukushima were playing on the same field in Azuma Park that Olympians will patrol in a couple of years. At Matsukawaundo Koen Ya Baseball Field, a children’s tournament was invigorated by a soundtrack of banging plastic megaphones, resembling a Japanese professional game.

As normal as these scenes may have felt for some residents, the spectre of the 2011 disaster remains.

In a fenced-off area in Azuma Park, hundreds of giant, black trash bags filled with decontaminated waste are being stored, stacked above eye level and still not yet properly discarded. The city government is working with Japan’s environment ministry to remove them before the Olympics, but for now the area, which is big enough to hold another baseball field, instead resembles a junkyard.

Azuma Stadium in Fukushima. Some of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics baseball and softball competitions will be held at the stadium

At the baseball fields around the city, as children run down the first-base line or chase down fly balls in right field, they pass by ominous signs posting the day’s radiation levels – tallies with more serious implications than the runs on the scoreboard.

Although sports are helping some in Fukushima heal, they have not erased all doubts about the future – and perhaps they shouldn’t be expected to.

“The government needs to inform us of actual information with scientific proof,” says Michiaki Kakudate, while watching his son, Keigo, 11, pitch at the children’s tournament. “They say it’s no problem, but that doesn’t convince people.”

© New York Times

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