People wearing masks take pictures of the Olympic flame exhibited in Fukushima on March 24, 2020, before the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games were postponed for a year. Photo: Kyodo
Peter Wynn Kirby
Peter Wynn Kirby

Covid-19, Fukushima legacy and other obstacles stand in the way of Japan’s ‘Recovery Olympics’

  • Japan has worked very hard to show that the post-tsunami disaster zone is safe, yet public opinion is turning against the Games
  • The problems that led to the Fukushima crisis – lack of transparency and an obstinate and out-of-touch leadership – are still evident
Early spring is the traditional run-up to the Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games, but Japan’s Olympic torch relay, scheduled for March 25, is shaping up to be unique. 
The 10th anniversary of the devastating 2011 tsunami and subsequent Fukushima Daiichi radiation crisis will be commemorated on March 11, and the government has made the Olympics an explicit glorification of the country’s efforts to bounce back from the historic disaster.
The Games are now also known as the “Recovery Olympics” there. In turn, Japan has worked very hard to position the Games to show that the post-tsunami disaster zone is safe and that the region has bounced back. Indeed, the Olympic torch relay is scheduled to begin in J-Village, the sports facility which served as a staging area for nuclear workers fighting the horrific triple meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi.

There is nothing subtle about the symbolism. The Olympic torch itself is fashioned, in part, from aluminium recycled from prefab disaster shelters used after the tsunami by evacuees escaping the carnage.

Significantly, in order to perform the difficult balancing act of managing problems related to disaster reconstruction and the Olympics, Japan has cut corners in its massive “decontamination” campaign to produce radiation levels low enough to let many evacuees return home to their communities. 


10 years after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, survivors are hopeful but worried

10 years after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, survivors are hopeful but worried
In the immediate aftermath of the radiation crisis, Japan played down the risks of radiation and, indeed, raised the regulatory levels of acceptable yearly exposure for workers and foodstuffs to make it easier to clear up the mess and get people back to their communities, safe or not.

Indeed, many partially resettled communities are located near areas that have higher radiation but are told to avoid them. Most preposterous is the government’s claimed effort, in progress, to “recycle” over 14 million tonnes of irradiated dirt scraped from the surface of fallout-laden areas of Fukushima.

This radioactive waste is now mostly being stored in massive piles of industrial bags that stand in and around the exclusion zone like rival memorials to official hubris. On the 10th anniversary of the triple meltdown, it is scandalous that the state continues to handle this radioactive waste in such a cavalier manner. 

In its coronavirus response, Japan must not repeat the mistakes of its handling of the Fukushima nuclear disaster

Also not reassuring was Greenpeace’s discovery, in December 2019, of an unremarked radiation hotspot next to the car park at J-Village. For a weekend visit, such Olympic venues are safe for visitors. But living in a hastily cleared area for 10 years is a different story. 

Regardless, for politicians and Japanese mandarins, holding high-profile events like Olympic baseball in a Fukushima venue allows Japan to demonstrate that radiation levels are now negligible and that the area is open for business, while simultaneously deflecting any negative light that the radiation crisis might cast on the Olympic showcase. 

The J-Village sports training centre in the town of Naraha in Fukushima. Photo: Kyodo

Yet the obstacles that confront the torch relay, and the Olympic Games more broadly, are considerable. Amid the very pandemic that forced the postponement of the Games for a year, the state judged that a masked, socially distanced Olympic relay – where cheering is forbidden, due to Covid-19 countermeasures – can proceed, allowing the symbolic torch to meander for four months throughout the disaster zone and beyond.

In the battle against the coronavirus, Japan and the four ‘tiger economies’ offer the world a new ‘Asian miracle’

However, Japanese popular opinion has, of late, turned decidedly against the Tokyo Olympics. Many Japanese believe that the Games are too expensive and/or that the lavish expenditure should be directed towards more worthy causes at such a difficult time in the midst of the pandemic and an economic downturn. 
Even if the Games do go ahead this summer as scheduled, there is also the thorny question of who, if anyone, will get to attend. Will the athletes – some of whom are intensely conscious of what they put into their bodies and reluctant to take vaccines – end up competing in virtually empty arenas, like participants in some tennis tournaments and NBA games held over the past year?

Will overseas visitors, either ticket holders or potential spectators, be allowed to enter Japan? The travel and commercial activity that accompany the Games are one of the established ways that host cities attempt to recoup the colossal outlays of staging such a sprawling showcase of sport, skill and national spirit.


No singing and chanting, Covid-19 rules unveiled for delayed Tokyo Olympics

No singing and chanting, Covid-19 rules unveiled for delayed Tokyo Olympics
The Games were originally budgeted to cost over US$12 billion, a figure that rose to US$15.4 billion with the one-year postponement. But government auditors’ own estimates suggest that the figure could rise to US$25 billion or more. Banning international visitors would certainly cut into Japan’s ability to make back the money it spent during the years of prodigality that preceded the Covid-19 pandemic.
Will only spectators who are resident in Japan be let into the many stadiums and arenas to watch the Games? Japan has a relatively low infection rate, though it has been on the rise. Most problematically, Japan’s roll-out of Covid-19 vaccines has been slow and deliberate, rather than accelerated to meet the scale of the challenge. At current and projected paces of provision, the likelihood is that domestic fans will not be vaccinated to a level that would suppress the spread of the coronavirus. 

Not that attending the Games will be as exuberant and carefree as in the past. The organising committee has indicated that spectators will not be allowed to cheer, chant, sing or drink alcohol.

On the 10th anniversary of such a tragic series of events, it is regrettable that the Olympic pageant has soured in the public imagination. Yet some problems that led to the Fukushima crisis again seem apparent – lack of transparency, obstinate and out-of-touch leadership, abstruse decision-making, an unhelpful focus on doctrine and PR. Japan would do well to embrace the unflinching ethical principles that sustain the Olympics in the human imagination.

Peter Wynn Kirby is an anthropologist and geographer based at the University of Oxford. He is also a High-End Overseas Visiting Fellow at Shanghai University