March 24, 2021
By Kiyoshi Takenaka and Chris Gallagher
IWAKI, Japan (Reuters) – Masao Hashimoto has dreamed of holding an Olympic torch since 1964, the first time Tokyo hosted the Olympics, when he ran behind the torch bearers. Rena Arakawa wants to say thanks for help after the 2011 nuclear disaster forced her from her home.
On Thursday, their dreams will come true.
They will be runners on the first day of the Olympic Torch relay, postponed for a year along with the Summer Games – a delay unprecedented in Olympic history forced on organisers by the global pandemic.
The four-month relay involves 10,000 runners and takes the torch across Japan’s 47 prefectures. It kicks off from Fukushima prefecture, where the tsunami 10 years ago crippled a nuclear plant and forced thousands to flee, including both Hashimoto, 71, and Arakawa, 17. Many have yet to return.
“‘I did it!’ That’s what I felt,” Hashimoto told Reuters, describing his feelings when chosen more than a year ago to bear the torch in the city of Iwaki.
“‘Am I really worthy of doing it?’ That’s what I felt as well.”
In 1964, when Japan became the first Asian nation to host the Olympics, Hashimoto was a baseball playing junior high school student and one of a select few chosen to run with the torch bearers, holding the Olympic flag.
“Truth be told, I wanted to hold that torch. But only six people from our school were even chosen to run, so I was delighted and it gave me a good memory to cherish,” he said.
A marathon runner who began at 61, Hashimoto looks younger than his age. He has run about 200 km a month in preparation for the relay, even though – like other runners – his stint is only 200 metres long.
Arakawa is also a runner, competing in the 3,000-metre race for her high school in Hirono, one of the towns worst affected by the nuclear accident.
It forced Arakawa, who was 7 when the disaster struck, to evacuate with her family for five years to the distant islands of Okinawa and the capital, Tokyo.
“I have been hoping to do this as it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Arakawa told Reuters at her high school.
“Also, I want to convey my appreciation to people who supported me in Okinawa and Tokyo when I was evacuating and moving around after the earthquake.”
As with many in Fukushima, the nuclear accident remains on her mind. She hopes to become a teacher outside of the prefecture, so she can convey to children what happened after the disaster. But ultimately, she will come home.
A recent survey by the Asahi Shimbun daily showed that one third of those polled believed the Olympics should be cancelled, and Arakawa said she had worried about the torch relay – particularly in December, when COVID-19 cases in Japan surged.
“But still, I wanted to do this,” she added, admitting that she was tense on the eve of the big day.
Hashimoto said he would take special care.
“I’ll go easy on my drinking tonight,” he said, with a broad grin.
(Writing by Elaine Lies; Editing by Mike Collett-White)