By: Oma Akatugba
I travelled to Tokyo Japan on September 3, 2018, as one of the many journalists from around the world, invited by the Tokyo Metropolitan government, to attend the first official world press briefing for the Tokyo2020 Olympic and Paralympic games. The event which held on the 4th of September at the Tokyo “big sight” international conference centre, brought together the world’s foremost media and press organisations to adequately understand the media operations during the Games.
After the World press briefing was over, other 23 journalists from about 13 nations and I were hosted to a two-day tour to regions in Japan, affected by the great Earthquake that ravaged the country in 2011. The tour afforded us the opportunity to have a first-hand experience of these regions and also learn how they have recovered from the earthquake, using sports as a critical element.
Day 1- September 8 2018
On Day 1, we started with a visit to the Miyagi Stadium, One of the venues that will host football matches of the Tokyo 2020 games. It is the largest stadium in the Tohoku region. The Miyagi stadium has an incredible story behind it — one that evokes emotions. During the Great East Japan Earthquake, the Miyagi stadium became an emergency operation hub for domestic and international rescue workers for months after the Earthquake. The Gymnasium of the stadium also served as an emergency mog as thousands of dead bodies were kept there before they were identified and taken away by their families. Even though the quake damaged a part of the stadium’s roof, the stadium served as a significant source of hope for the people in the very devastating moments. But as of the time of our visit, the stadium was wearing a very new and shining look.
A look that gives hope and encouragement to the people of the region, especially those who experienced the mortifying earthquake. It also gave other journalists, who had tears in their eyes hope, while listening to the Mayor of the town of Rufu, where the stadium is located, Yutaka Kumagai, as he narrates the story of the Earthquake and how the city had recovered using sports as a vital component of hope. We also learned that the city also received help from all over the world.
“Sports cheers up at a time of disaster, and we got the power from sport and soccer. We want to show to the world in 2020, the power of reconstruction, the power of coming together to rebuild our nation after the disastrous earthquake” Yutaka Kumagai told me before we departed the Miyagi stadium.
Our next stop was the “sports smile classroom” in Miyamori Elementary school. The school ivites Athletes with passion occasionally as dream teachers, who pass on inspirational messages to the children. This project was created in 2011 by four groups namely, the (Japan Sports Association, Japanese Olympic Committee, Japan Football Association, and Japan Top League Alliance) for the children in the district that were significantly affected by the East Japan earthquake. Over 3,000 lessons have been carried out till the time of our visit. Over 80,000 children have through this project regained a happy life and had rediscovered the need always to have a smile on their faces again. Circa 450 athletes were brought in to play the role of “Dream Teachers” in disaster-affected areas including Fukushima, Iwate, and Miyagi, meeting with more than 84,000 fifth-graders as of 31 March 2018. The project plans to offer 600 lessons in the fiscal year of 2018.
The project consists of “Game time” and “Talk time.”
While being active with the children, the athletes pass on the importance of cooperating with teammates and the importance of thinking about others.
Based on the experience of the dream teachers, they pass on the delightfulness of having a dream and the importance of working hard to realise it.
We were informed beforehand that we would not be able to go inside the school building with our shoes on, but the Tokyo Metropolitan Government provided slippers which we all changed into before entering the school building. The school building itself was another highlight for most of the journalist on ground and. The wooden structure, also known as “the forest school” as it was built in a highland forest to avoid the risk of a tsunami, was recently constructed for children who had lost their permanent school facility because of the massive damage from the earthquake in 2011.
The aim is to cultivate a rich heart while coexisting with nature and also creating experiential opportunities for students to expand their possibilities. Ayumu Muraoka, the principal of the school, while welcoming us to the school, said, “Thanks for visiting us. As you can see, the building was able to be reborn. However, the children’s hearts are still traumatised by the disaster. Especially those who witnessed the big Tsunami, we need to take care of their emotions.”
“So not just getting a new knowledge but we also have to nurture the kid’s heart, and the school plays an essential role in that, so we provide a great environment and platform that utilise a lot of nature.
“We hope that the school will nurture healthy children full of love for their hometown who will support the future of Higashimatsushima Town.”
This time, the “Sports Smile Classroom” had Ms Satoko Mabuchi, a 2008 Beijing Olympic Games gold medallist in softball as the visiting teacher. The first action took place in the gym with and then the children played softball together with Mabuchi, who led the session with so much calm and smile on her face while the kids played along with so much happiness. Then we all moved to the classroom where she gave a lecture on how she was able to achieve her goal of winning the gold medal in softball at the Beijing Olympics, by never giving up and continuing to train hard.
The Children asked her a few questions on how she prepared and what it took for her to achieve such feet. Some of the kids talked about what they would like to become when they grow up, and quite a number wanted to be footballers like Hidetoshi Nakata.
At the end of the lecture, the kids thanked Mabuchi, who asked them to come close and touch the Olympic gold medal one of after the other.
And then it was time for us take pictures with the children as well as the guest teacher Ms Mabuchi. Just like the delighted kids, I also had the opportunity of touching and feeling her Olympic gold medal as we posed for a photograph.
The Miyanomori elementary school visit was an exciting highlight for me, and the pictures will linger in my memory for a very long time. Our bus moved to our next port of call. That would be the Seapal Pier Onagawa, a recently opened shopping area in the coastal city of Onagawa, one of the most profoundly damaged towns by the tsunami with a casualty rate of 8.3 per cent and a damage rate of 85.4 per cent. We were blown away by the level of reconstruction that has taken place in this city. It looked as though, nothing happened in the first place. The calmness and tranquillity of this town were second to none.
Seapal Pier Onagawa is the commercial promenade connecting the seaport and Onagawa Station, which was reopened in 2015 on an elevated land of seven metres from the ground after the tsunami destroyed it.
We attended a discussion session with representatives from Cobaltore Onagawa, a local football team which was recently promoted to the Japan Football League, the fourth level semi-professional league. The speakers were Yuji Abe, General Manager of Cobaltore Onagawa, and Kosei Chiba, the first homegrown player on the team who experienced the 2011 earthquake when he was an elementary school student. The speakers informed us on how the sport helped energise and unite the local community. We also met Midai Suzuki, a disabled local elementary school student, who through her skills as an artist, had won the poster competition for the Olympic and Paralympic Games, organised by the Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee in the spring of 2018. She walked on to the podium with are work of art and displayed it to everyone in the room. Midai Suzuki’s masterpiece depicted various Paralympic athletes, highlighting each athletes’ impairment in, the colour of the gold medal because Midai herself had an impairment in her legs and wanted to express her strength in disability.
“an impairment is the person’s individuality” that people should respect and the person should be proud of”. Midai Suzuki said while responding to questions from the journalist on tour.
While we walked around this beautiful and serene town of Onagawa, we saw Midai Suzuki sitting in front of her mum’s gift store, located at the shopping centre. It was like meeting an American pop star as everyone justled for a picture with the talented young girl.
We ended our tour of Onagawa town with a walk to the “Inotinosekihi Project” this is a monument that represents a significant part of the city’s recovery from the earthquake.
The project was started by children in the city who experienced the earthquake at the age of 12, and the purpose is to use the monument as a way of passing down the memories of the disaster.
Their objective is to build a stone monument at the Tsunami- reaching points of 21 beaches in Onagawa and have already established 17 from the targeted 21.
Kosei Chiba, a player of Cobaltore Onagawa, narrated the history of the monument.
“One of the first social study lessons after joining the junior high school. The structure of the school at that time asked us a question which is what Onagawa needs at the moment.
“So we put our heads together to discuss what would be needed at that time. And that is the origin of this monument. And we investigated the history of Onagawa town.
“A few years back there was a big earthquake in Chile, and that’s when we found out there was a monument in Onaagaw that talks about the earthquake in Chile.
“And we came to an understanding that it was a great idea to pass the history to the next generation, So that’s how we decided to erect a monument like this”.
Our visit to Onagawa ended after the moments at the monument and the bus headed for the hotel where we all got our room keys, and everyone went to their rooms. We were told to meet up at the lobby at 7 AM the next day for our trip to Fukushima prefecture.
Unfortunately for me. I could not continue the tour to Fukushima as I had to go to the Haneda International airport in Tokyo to connect my return flight first to London and then to Hannover as I had booked my ticket to return to Germany on the 8th of September because unbeknownst to me, the tour was going to end on the 7th of September. My visit had come to an end, but the group continued to Fukushima Prefecture where they visited an elementary school in Showa. Showa is a small village with a population of about 1,400 of which 55 percent are aged 65 and over-the second largest percentage in Fukushima and seventh in Japan as of 2017.
Fukushima will play a very crucial role when the Olympic games begin in 2020 as the Olympic torch will depart from it on March 26, 2020.
A softball game will kick off in Azuma Stadium on July 22, 2020, two days before the opening ceremony ahead of all sports matches. The baseball opening game will also be held in Fukushima Prefecture.
The other group of journalist met the following Olympians in Fukushima and they are:
Mai Nakamura/swimming, swimming race is Olympic Games Atlanta 1996 4h place Olympic Games Sydney 2000 silver and bronze
Risako Mitsui / swimming, synchronised swimming Olympic Games London 2012 Olympic Games Rio 2016 5th place Bronze medal
Nobuharu Saito/volleyball Olympic Games Beijing 2008 Shigeyuki Dejima/skate, speed skating Olympic Games Vancouver 2010 8th place
Rika Sato/table tennis Olympic Games Barcelona 1992 Olympic Games Atlanta 1996
Mika Sugimoto /judo Olympic Games London 2012 Silver medal
They interacted with about one hundred locals including young children through various sports activities in an event tagged “The Olympic day Festa.” and had a slogan “bringing smiles through sports”. It was consecutively staged since the Earthquake in 2011in the disaster areas to support the reconstruction after the devastating East Japan Earthquake of March 11 2011. The event has taken place in more than 120 venues in Fukushima, and the other four affected prefectures and the game had a total number of 20,273 local people and 658 athletes, including some from overseas, participated in the as of 31 March 2018.
Showa- Mura village suffered little direct damage from the earthquake and Tsunami, as a consequence of its distance from the epicentre. However, “talks” of radioactivity due to the nuclear accident have severely affected its primary industries of tourism and agriculture, and as a consequence, there was a drastic decrease of tourists and sales of agricultural products which harshly crippled the local economy.
The last stop on tour according to the plan was to be a visit to the Aizu Wakamatsu City, a popular tourist destination that is well known for its Samurai culture and rich heritage. But as of the time, this was happening, I was already back home in Hanover Germany, telling my family how beautiful Japan was and the inspiring stories of the Miyagi stadium, Onagawa town, Midai Suzuki to mention but a few.
One thing that was evident during my stay in Japan was how the far east nation has significantly developed over the years and in doing so, has kept its beautiful cultural heritage intact. A journalist colleague from Austria told me during the tour, “Japan does not just have skyscrapers, it has a great culture founded on respect and decency.”
Just like the great Nelson Mandela said, “sports has the power to change lives” This is what precisely happened to Japan as they have drawn great strength from sports to recover and rebuild their country and are hoping to tell this great story to the world during the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic games in 2020.