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The Olympic Torch Began Its Trip Around Japan Today Starting In Fukushima

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The Olympic torch began its journey around Japan today, almost exactly a year after it was supposed to. Runners left from Fukushima, a departure heavy with symbolism. The area was walloped by an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster a decade ago. NPR's Kat Lonsdorf reports.

KAT LONSDORF, BYLINE: On this day last year, I was in Fukushima and watched as dozens of workers disassembled an impressive stage set for the grand start of the Olympic torch relay. Giant bouquets of flowers were packed away. Banners were rolled up. The relay was called off hours before it was supposed to start, a casualty of the pandemic. But today, a very different scene at that same spot.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Japanese).

LONSDORF: There weren't crowds. This event was live-streamed. But it was something and a strong signal that the Olympics will happen this year, even amidst scandal and worries about safety in the pandemic. The tagline for the relay is...

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Hope Lights Our Way.

LONSDORF: ...Hope Lights Our Way, meant to highlight the recovery that this area has seen since the disasters. Today, the torch wove through the former nuclear exclusion areas across towns that had sat abandoned for years.

People are slowly starting to return. But when I talked to residents last year, there were mixed feelings about the celebration.

EIKO TAKIMOTO: (Speaking Japanese).

LONSDORF: Eiko Takimoto and her husband both laughed when I asked if they would cheer for the torch. They lost both their business and their home after the nuclear disaster.

TAKIMOTO: (Speaking Japanese).

LONSDORF: I'll cheer since the government asked me to, Eiko said. But...

TAKIMOTO: (Speaking Japanese).

LONSDORF: ...It won't be from my heart. Kazuko Endo, another resident, told me, sure, it's great the torch is coming through.

KAZUKO ENDO: (Speaking Japanese).

LONSDORF: But it doesn't really affect people who live here, she said. Recovery is still so far off.

ENDO: (Speaking Japanese).

LONSDORF: That's a common feeling here - a kind of eye roll at the theatrics while much remains in shambles. Still, there is joy, even if it's bittersweet. Take resident Takayuki Ueno, who ran the torch today. He lost both his young children and his parents in the tsunami 10 years ago. When I talked to him last year, he described how happy he'll be to run to honor his family.

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TAKAYUKI UENO: (Speaking Japanese).

LONSDORF: He pictured the day of the relay.

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UENO: (Speaking Japanese).

LONSDORF: I'll run and laugh no matter what, he said.

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UENO: (Speaking Japanese).

LONSDORF: I know my family, my children will be looking down on me. He was devastated when the relay was canceled last minute. But today, Ueno ran...

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ENDO: (Speaking Japanese, laughing).

LONSDORF: ...And he laughed. Kat Lonsdorf, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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