Naraha, Japan: The J-Village sports complex in Japan’s Fukushima was once a staging ground for battling the 2011 nuclear disaster, but next year it will host Olympic teams and the torch relay, sending a message of recovery.
The Tokyo 2020 Olympic torch relay will begin at the centre, and Olympic softball and baseball matches will be played elsewhere in Fukushima, as part of efforts that officials and residents hope will help repair the reputation of a region now synonymous with the nuclear meltdown.
“The torch relay is a golden opportunity to send a message about our reconstruction to the world,” said Yusuke Takana, a 32-year-old official at the J-Village, from where the Olympic torch will set off on March 26, 2020.
“The J-Village overcame the disaster and has been revived in its original form as a sports training centre,” Takana said.
Built in 1997 as a fully fledged sport training complex, the J-Village was radically transformed by the nuclear meltdown.
Thousands of workers wearing radiation protection suits, gas masks and dosimeters were dispatched every day to the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant from the sports centre, located just on the edge of the initial 20-kilometre (12-mile) no-go zone.
Sports fields were used as a heliport, a decontamination centre and temporary houses were set up for plant workers, while armoured vehicles and firefighters were stationed at its parking lots.
“It was so painful to see these buildings being put up on the ground where we trained in our youth,” said Ayako Masuda, a former goalkeeper with a women’s football club run by the nuclear plant operator Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO).
The J-Village’s pitch was her team’s home ground, said the 44-year-old, who stayed with TEPCO as an employee after retiring from football.
The complex clean-up at the nuclear plant continues, but the J-Village’s role as a staging centre diminished over time and it reopened fully as a sports centre in April.
On a Friday afternoon, schoolboys were kicking and heading a ball on the turf as part of a summer football camp, cheered from the sidelines by coaches and parents.
“The pitch is beautiful. It’s well worth playing here,” said Ryuki Asai, a 12-year-old boy in his team’s soccer uniform.
There are few signs of the role the J-Village once played, though a digital display showing radiation levels still operates outside the front gate.
It registered 0.111 microsieverts per hour at the gate - barely different from 0.110 in central Japan’s Gifu.
Emiko Takahashi was visiting with her son from Tokyo, and had checked the radiation levels posted on the J-Village website.
“Coming here with my son is a way of supporting Fukushima’s reconstruction,” Takahashi said.
The complex will be used for training by Japan’s men’s and women’s national football teams ahead of the Olympics, and Argentina’s rugby team plans to train there before the World Cup that begins in Japan on September 20.
Fukushima Governor Masao Uchibori called the facility a symbol of reconstruction while acknowledging that “difficult tasks” remained.
More than 160,000 people were evacuated after the nuclear meltdown caused when a 9.0-magnitude earthquake triggered a massive tsunami on March 11, 2011. Some areas affected by the meltdown remain off-limits, and some 43,000 residents have yet to return home.
Levels of radiation in areas directly around the plant remain extremely high, hampering a decommissioning process that is expected to take decades.
And while radiation levels are now largely normal outside the restricted zone, Fukushima is still fighting its association with the meltdown, particularly fears over the safety of local food.
“The reputation damage remains deeply rooted,” said Shunji Miura, an official from Fukushima prefecture.
As part efforts to rehabilitate its reputation, Fukushima will host Olympic matches in softball and baseball - Japan’s most popular sport.
On Saturday, children from 13 countries gathered at the Azuma Sports Park that will host the Olympic matches for a baseball tournament.
“I hope that when these children go back home they will tell people that Fukushima was good,” said Sadaharu Oh, Japan’s retired home-run king, who helped organise the tournament.
“And I hope that those who hear that from them will change their image” of Fukushima, Oh added.
Yi-Yu Tseng, a 10-year-old pitcher from Taiwan, acknowledged the history of the nuclear disaster made the prospect of visiting “a little bit scary”.
“But I’m feeling less scared now,” he said.
“I want to come back to Fukushima.”