Nine years later

On September 7, 2013, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said this to the 125th Session of the International Olympic Committee:

It would be a tremendous honour for us to host the Games in 2020 in Tokyo – one of the safest cities in the world, now… and in 2020.

Some may have concerns about Fukushima. Let me assure you, the situation is under control. It has never done and will never do any damage to Tokyo.

Two years later, on January 27, 2015, Mr. Abe basked in the glory of winning the IOC’s bid in this speech at the third meeting of the Ministerial Council on the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games:

At the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, we will create an optimal environment so that the participating athletes can deliver their best performances. Moreover, as a festive event that involves the entire nation, the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games will give momentum to restoring the vitality of Japan. In particular, the Olympics will be a “Recovery Olympics” that should spur recovery for the areas affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake, and we will show the world how these areas have made a magnificent recovery.

To be fair, Mr. Abe wasn’t wrong when he said that the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami didn’t do any damage to Tokyo. In the seven years since he made that remark, the city has opened up to overseas tourists (now inexplicably termed “インバウンド (inbound) “, as tourists aren’t human, but are a direction filled with cash for the economy), the country endured a nasty debate about the new national stadium’s cost and design, a marketing agency plagiarized a logo, and tens of thousands of “volunteers” are about to be free labor for an event for a glitzy commercial spectacle that will generate billions of dollars of revenue. In short, Tokyo is as lively as ever.

The other part of Mr. Abe’s statement, though, is a lie.

“Under control”

In December, the Associated Press published a feature on Futaba, a town in Fukushima Prefecture where the torch relay is to start. (The flame was lit this week in Greece without spectators.) This is what Mari Yamaguchi and Stephen Wade wrote:

The town has been largely decontaminated and visitors can go almost anywhere without putting on hazmat suits, though they must carry personal dosimeters — which measure 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 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) from the nuclear plant, and 250 kilometers (150 miles) 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.

Futaba Minami Elementary School has been untouched for almost nine years and feels like a mausoleum. No one died in the evacuation. But school bags, textbooks and notebooks sit as they were when nearly 200 children rushed out.

The main train station the article mentions in passing is Futaba Station, a station on the Joban Line, which is operated by JR East. When Futaba Station reopens, trains can run on the entirety of the Joban Line for the first time since the 2011 Tohoku earthquake.

TV Asahi, March 9, 2020

Is the reopening of Futaba Station nonetheless a sign of progress? Mari Saito and Kiyoshi Takenaka, for Reuters, asked the local residents:

“I wish they wouldn’t hold the relay here,” said Onuma. He pointed to workers repaving the road outside the train station, where the torch runners are likely to pass. “Their number one aim is to show people how much we’ve recovered.” 

He said he hoped that the torch relay would also pass through the overgrown and ghostly parts of the town, to convey everything that the 7,100 residents uprooted of Futaba lost as a result of the accident. 

“I don’t think people will understand anything by just seeing cleaned-up tracts of land.”

A few days ago, TV Asahi showed this haunting contrast between “cleaned-up tracts of land” and the “overgrown and ghostly parts of the town”. A short walk from the new Futaba Station building will reveal a main street with overgrown weeds, shattered storefronts, and collapsed buildings.

In a interview, 70 year old Akio Sanpei told TV Asahi what he thought about the full reopening of the Joban Line. Mr. Sanpei said:


I would say that the Joban Line fully reopened for the Olympics.


It’s a reopening to make some sort of impression. If the Olympics weren’t happening, I wouldn’t expect them to reopen the line in such a hurry.

In other words, Futaba is a Potemkin Village to validate Mr. Abe’s remarks. There is no purpose to the station. There is no purpose to running 10 car trains on the line when there is no ridership. There is no purpose to having 240,000 people decontaminate the line if no one is coming back. Indeed, the Reuters article paints a picture of despair in Futaba. Even if it is now safe to live in Futaba, most people have started new lives away from the town.

One other pointless station JR East will open on the same day is, Takanawa Gateway, the 30th and newest station on the Yamanote Line, in Shinagawa, Tokyo.

Complete with a tacky name (a desperate corporate attempt to brand the station as a ‘gateway’ to Tokyo) and tacky technology flourishes (like employee-free convenience stores and LCD screens that broadcast pointless concept videos), Takanawa Gateway represents the worst excess of corporate Olympic Tokyo, a toxic addiction to constructing infrastructure over supporting communities, a desperate appeal to exploit the efforts of athletes to force the world to donate their attention to a city that already has plenty, and away from areas that genuinely need to recover.

Local news journalists confronted Mr. Abe’s “under control” remarks when he came to Futaba with white gloves to, among other things, open the station earlier this month.

On the defensive, he maintained that he sent the right message to the world among the many and mistaken media reports on the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Japanese audio with some Japanese subtitles.

It would be unfair to see the coronavirus as some sort of karmic retribution for Mr. Abe’s “recovery Olympics” lie. Many people look forward to the Olympics with good reason. For example, this 92 year old fifth-generation unagi restaurant owner survived the Bombing of Tokyo. Seventy-five years later, he wants to run for peace in the torch relay.

But whatever happens to the Tokyo Olympics, the scars—and the bureaucratic negligence to—the aftermath of Tohoku earthquake and tsunami remain for the world to see.

See my reading list for the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami here.