By Chris Gallagher
FUKUSHIMA, Japan (Reuters) – It was meant to be the start of a triumphant march to the Tokyo 2020 Games: the torch relay would begin on Thursday in Fukushima, battered by the 2011 earthquake and nuclear disaster, as a poignant symbol of the “Recovery Olympics.”
But instead, it was like any other day for this prefecture in northeast Japan after the relay was scrapped following the Games’ postponement due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Residents were unable to hide their disappointment even though they agreed with the decision.
“It’s a little unfortunate. I was looking forward to the torch relay,” said Mai Sakata, a 31-year-old homemaker, who had planned to watch the torch pass near her home.
“But with the coronavirus I think the postponement was the correct move in order to make people feel safe,” she said outside Fukushima station while holding her one-year-old daughter.
High school student Yu Kurashige, 16, said the decision to delay the Games until summer 2021 at the latest was inevitable given the global health emergency.
“I think the torch relay is something that’s really important for Japan but this time cancellation was unavoidable,” he said. “The most important thing is everyone’s safety.”
“FLAME OF RECOVERY”
Others, though, took it harder. “I’m 20 this year and I thought this would be a memory to mark that, but it’s gone away so I’m sad,” said college student Nao Nitta.
Having won the Games in 2013, Japan said it would symbolize rebirth after the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami that killed around 18,000 people and triggered a meltdown at a nuclear power plant.
On Thursday, in Fukushima City roughly 80 km (50 miles) from the Daichi nuclear plant on the Pacific coast, many people were working and shopping normally on a sunny day amid newly-appearing cherry blossoms. The prefecture has had only two coronavirus infections so far and noticeably fewer people wore masks than in the capital Tokyo.
Near the plant, signs of reconstruction efforts are everywhere: new roads have been built, apartment blocks for evacuee families have sprouted up, and an imposing tsunami wall now runs along the coastline. An army of workers commutes to the wrecked plant every day to decommission the reactors.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has linked the Olympics to the fight against the coronavirus as well, saying the rescheduled Games would serve as a testament to mankind’s victory over the pandemic.
The torch did go on a special “Flame of Recovery” tour limited to six locations in the disaster areas of the northeast, drawing crowds despite concerns about the coronavirus spreading, before the nationwide relay was called off.
Some from Fukushima have already turned the page and are hoping the relay’s route will remain the same next year.
“It’s better in a situation where everyone can have fun,” said Kumiko Saito, a travel business worker.
(Reporting by Chris Gallagher; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)