'Bad for Fukushima, bad for democracy'

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Photo: Andrew Mager/Flickr


By Andreas Singler
One year before the opening of the Summer Olympics in Tokyo there is considerable resistance to the so-called ‘Reconstruction Games’ in Japan that critics fear will remove focus from the Fukushima disaster and undermine democratic values.

July 24 – one year to go until the opening of the Summer Olympics in Tokyo – may have been a day of joyful anticipation for many who embrace the Olympic Movement. But not all people anticipate this event as cheerfully as the organisers in Japan, a large part of the media and the Government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would appreciate. There was and still is much opposition against the hosting of the Olympic and Paralympic Games 2020 in Tokyo. Opponents call it both “bad for democracy” and “bad for Fukushima” – the area hit by a nuclear power plant disaster on 11 March 2011 and a devastating earthquake and tsunami.

For those critics, July 24 was a reason to take to the streets against Tokyo 2020. They had announced a rally for this memorable day followed by a demonstration in Shinjuku, one of the most crowded hubs in Tokyo. A leaflet even suggested that the Olympics could be “given back even a year before”. The protest in Tokyo was part of a so-far unique international gathering of ‘NOlympics’ activists from several countries. For eight days, opponents from Tokyo, Pyeongchang, Rio de Janeiro, Paris and Los Angeles discussed the dark sides of the Olympics with critical scholars and alternative media. A press conference was held at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan.

The motto ‘the Reconstruction Games’, that the organisers and the Government chose after the 2011 East Japan triple disaster, sounds like sheer mockery, opponents say. Organisers as well as the International Olympic Committee (IOC), including President Thomas Bach, often talk about reconstruction, but hardly ever mention the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster as one of the main reason for the need of such rebuilding.

“We call them ‘reconstruction-obstruction games’,” says Satoshi Ukai, professor of French literature at Hitotsubashi University in Kunitachi, Tokyo. He is the co-founder of the so-called ‘No Thank You to Olympic disasters-Association’ (in Japanese Okotowarinku) that organises lectures, discussions, and fieldwork on the problematical aspects of big sports events. Together with the ‘Assembly Against the Five Rings’ (Hangorin no Kai), a small group of park residents and their supporters active since 2013, the circle around Ukai organised the international meeting in Tokyo.

The “narration of reconstruction,” says Ukai, is pure “camouflage”. It prevents necessary changes in society and leads a fatal ‘back to the starting point’ attitude. Mistakes made before, such as the use of high-risk nuclear technology in one of the world's most vulnerable earthquake countries, would simply be repeated.

Removes focus from the disaster-hit regions
In reality, these Games are about forgetting the nuclear accident itself and with it “the victims of the nuclear accident”, the scholar says. Opponents are concerned that the immense amount of money, materials and labour spent on the Olympics would be lost to the disaster-hit regions in the north east of Japan, and especially those affected by the nuclear catastrophe. Refugees are currently to be forced by financial pressure to return to areas that have been evacuated after the 2011 triple disaster, despite still significantly increased levels of radiation, as retired nuclear physicist Hiroaki Koide is pointing out. According to him, the fact that even children or pregnant women have to live with a twenty-fold increased limit for annual radiation exposure (from 1 millisievert per year before and up to 20 mSv after the incident), “is something that cannot be accepted at all”.

Representatives of those people affected in Fukushima wish that at least a small proportion of the twenty billion euro Tokyo 2020 will cost, according to the Japanese Court of Auditors, would be used to help refugees in a reasonable way. “I'm not against the Olympics in principle, but now is not the time for it,” says Sumio Konno, chairman of a plaintiff group “For the protection of children from radioation” (Kodomo datsuhibaku saiban) that is still arguing for the children’s right to flee from regions where radioactive emissions are higher than the former limit of 1 mSv per year.

The Olympics are being organised “so that people in Japan forget the responsibility of the state for the nuclear accident,” believes Takashi Nakajima from the coastal town of Soma in the Fukushima prefecture. He represents a plaintiff group of almost 4,000 people who sued the power plant operator Tokyo Denryoku (TEPCO) and the Japanese state for the “restoration of our former living and working conditions and for getting back our home areas” (short: nariwai sosho).

The crisis of the moral legitimacy of Japanese Olympic bidding culminates not only in the corruption allegations by French prosecutors faced by the Tokyo 2020 bid, but also in the appearance of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe six years ago at the IOC session in Buenos Aires.

At the time, Abe vouched for the safety of participants in the Games by saying that the situation in Fukushima was “under control”. Most people may think, in opposition, that no one can guarantee the safety of a nuclear power plant fighting several meltdowns. To marginalise the nuclear accident with the help of the Olympics and Paralympics is “unfair” and “unpardonable,” Takashi Nakajima says. To him, the true dimensions of the radiation problem are being severely downplayed by Abe’s performance. “I have no objection to sport, but I'm against Olympics that take place in such a spirit,” Nakajima says. “Absolutely against it!”

As a result, the baseball and softball events to be held in Fukushima City pose a danger. Not so much related to radioactivity that Olympic guests might be exposed to during their short-term stay in Fukushima, a city of 290,000 permanent residents.

“What's really dangerous,” says Naoya Kodama, director of a non-profit organisation called EarthWalkers offering education and recovering programs for Fukushima children and adolescents, is that “the athletes will tell the world that Fukushima is safe. They will tell that the situation in Fukushima is under control”. Olympic participants need to be aware of the context in which these Games will be taking place, the retired nuclear physicist Hiroaki Koide points out. He warns that the participants could end up standing side by side with those in the Japanese government who are responsible for the criticised handling of the Fukushima accident.

Wide-spread concerns
It may not be a mass movement, which shows up in Tokyo from time to time in public and is harassed by security police, as protesters frequently complain. But their arguments are not without persuasive power, and they probably represent concerns shared by millions of Japanese. When the opinion and market research institute Cromegane published a survey in early 2017, there was only a slim majority who fully or partially supported the Games. This question then disappeared from the questionnaire of that annual survey. And another study on behalf of the public broadcaster NHK in the disaster hit areas of north-eastern Japan revealed a strong rejection of the term ‘Reconstruction Games’ for the Abe Government and the Olympic organisers. Less than three per cent of the respondents fully agreed that Tokyo 2020 would be helpful to the disaster-hit areas.

Not only are the Olympics widely believed to be bad for Fukushima. Although the Olympic torch relay will travel through the area hit by the nuclear disaster, starting in March 2020, it cannot disguise the still-barricaded access roads to the ‘difficult to return areas', as they are called in Japanese euphemism. Due to their social and political impact on the society of a host country in the 21st century, the world's biggest sports festival is also not good for democracy, say those critics who deal more closely with Olympic patterns. “Everything the Olympics bring proves to be a disaster for the Japanese people,” concludes a 2017 manifesto written by the ‘Okotowarink’ activists, many of whom have an academic background.

This refers, for instance, to the ongoing eviction of people living in parks or forced relocation of predominantly elderly and partially ill residents of the now demolished Kasumigaoka housing estate in favour of the new National Stadium building in the Shibuya district. Since moving, mortality has risen among the former residents, according to the Hangorin no Kai. “Quite a number of people had been evicted from their homes and forced to relocate first for the 1964 Olympics,” Misako Ichimura and Tetsuo Ogawa, two of the Hangorin no Kai’s founders and activists, explain. They have both lived in a tent village in Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park since 2003. Since 2013, they have held several rallies and demonstrations, each attended by around a hundred people – mostly accompanied by an irrationally large number of policemen and followed by – the protesters claim – illegal arrests of some of them.

In addition to the problem of gentrification, realised for instance by joint ventures transforming public property into big companies’ private profit, critics observe direct challenges to the democratic culture in the host countries by the Olympics. Open discussions on the Olympics, as many people are criticising, are no longer possible in an atmosphere of increasing nationalism. “Opponents to the Olympics will be treated as traitors,” writes the physicist Koide. “But in a country where the Government abandons innocent people, I am pleased to be such a person,” he adds.

Undermining democratic values
Japanologist and literary scholar Donald Keene, who passed away earlier this year aged 96 and who became a Japanese citizen after ‘March 11’ in solidarity with the suffering country, sharply criticised the media for their Olympic coverage of Rio de Janeiro in his Tokyo Shimbun column. Keene mentioned – “as if living in a totalitarian state” – mass media’s nationalistic approach and lack of journalistic distance. “From the very beginning, I was opposed to Tokyo Olympics,” Keene wrote. He was, according to Satoshi Ukai, one of the few public figures in Japan who could still be allowed such a clear-cut opinion. Keene, by birth a US citizen, was a legend among international Japanologists as an annalist, translator and intimate connoisseur of Japan's golden generation of post-war writers.

“The longer one reflects about Olympics, the bigger the problems appear,” says Ukai. The fact that big celebrations and major disasters both can fuel nationalism and undermine the democratic culture of a country is one of the issues touched upon by US political scientist Jules Boykoff in his lecture on ‘Celebration Capitalism’ during a symposium at Waseda University in Tokyo on 21 July. His theoretical approach that refers on Naomi Klein’s term ‘disaster capitalism’ and covers Olympics in general appears like a blueprint on the conditions in ‘post-Fukushima’ Japan, where there are only a few years between catastrophe and festival event.

A larger number of laws have been adopted in recent years, partly as so-called anti-terrorism measures in the name of Olympic security. Critics call it an attack on the freedom of press, of expression, and of assembly. Those laws, one by one, caused mass protests driven by various social movements. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights, Joseph Cannataci, criticised an Anti-Conspiracy Act of 2017 in an open letter to Prime Minister Abe. And in a report to the UN Human Rights Committee, Special Rapporteur David Kaye sounded the alarm over the country's eroding freedom of the press. It is hardly possible to report freely about sensitive issues of Japanese history such as Japan's role in World War II, the ‘comfort women’ issue or, yet, about the real situation in Fukushima, Kaye reported. In just a few years, Japan dropped from number 11 in 2010 to 72 in 2018 and 67 in the current ranking of ‘Reporters Without Borders’.

Andreas Singler is a German freelance journalist, Japanologist and sports scientist (PhD). In 2018 he published his book ‘Sayonara Nuclear Power. Protests in Japan after ‘Fukushima’’, a portrait of Japan’s anti-nuclear movement. In September 2019, his book ‘Tokyo 2020: Olympics and the arguments of the opponents’ will be published (both in German).

Website: https://www.andreas-singler.de 

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