FUKUSHIMA, Japan — A sea of brightly colored banners and advertisements decorated the Fukushima train station in early November to celebrate coming road races and Fukushima United, the local soccer club.
There are new professional baseball and basketball franchises in the region, too. They carry inspirational names like the Hopes and the Firebonds, the latter signifying the spirit of a team connecting to the community, said 21-year-old point guard Wataru Igari.
For an area with a growing interest in sports, the biggest boon came in March when the International Olympic Committee approved Fukushima to host baseball and softball games during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Yet Fukushima remains defined by tragedy.
The 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami caused meltdowns and radiation leaks at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Devastation touched every corner of Fukushima prefecture, which is about the size of Connecticut. Among the population of nearly 2 million residents, more than 160,000 near the power plant fled or evacuated, while an estimated 16,000 people died.
The disaster also damaged the Fukushima name. Tourism declined. The rest of Japan shunned produce or materials from Fukushima.
Almost seven years later, pockets of the prefecture — mainly in its namesake capital city — are attempting to change its perception through sports.
“We are looked at like Chernobyl,” said Saito Nobuyuki, who was born in Fukushima and now owns Sportsland, a sporting goods store here. “It’s difficult to change.”
Akinori Iwamura is among those hoping to rehabilitate Fukushima’s name.
Iwamura was the starting second baseman for the Tampa Bay Rays in the 2008 World Series. He also won two World Baseball Classic championships with Japan and played in the Nippon Professional Baseball League for 13 years.
Today, Iwamura, 38, is toiling at the lowest levels of organized baseball. He is the manager of the Fukushima Hopes, a semipro team whose games are sparsely attended; Iwamura equated the level of play to Class AA baseball in the United States.
“I call myself a missionary,” Iwamura said. “Even though it’s a negative way many people know the name of Fukushima, we have to change it into a positive way.”
Iwamura was preparing to play for the Rakuten Golden Eagles when the earthquake and tsunami struck. Although he is from Ehime prefecture in southern Japan, Iwamura said he felt it became his “destiny” to help rebuild Fukushima after he retired. Among those who encouraged him, Iwamura said, was Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon, who was his coach with the Rays.
Iwamura could have a big stage to help bolster the area’s image when Fukushima Azuma Baseball Stadium, the home park of the Hopes, hosts Olympic Games in 2020. Iwamura sees in that another opportunity to inform the world about life beyond the disaster.
“When they go back to their country, they can tell their impression to the local people of their countries so it will bring more people to come for tourism,” he said.
The stadium is in the capital, about 90 minutes from Tokyo by high-speed train and 55 miles west of the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The city did not receive extensive damage like other towns closer to the plant and the coast, which concerns critics who believe the conditions of more seriously affected areas will be ignored because of the Olympics.
Immediately after the announcement in March that Fukushima would host baseball, anti-nuclear activists denounced the move. They argued it created a facade that Fukushima had returned to normal and glossed over the remaining hardships faced by an estimated 120,000 residents who still cannot — and may never — return to their homes.
“The Japanese government wants to show the fake side of Fukushima,” said Hajime Matsukubo, secretary-general for the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center in Tokyo. In his office, Matsukubo showed a copy of the Fukushima Minpo newspaper, which listed radiation levels of all the towns in Fukushima like box scores in a daily sports section.
Azby Brown, who works for Safecast, an organization that helps citizens independently measure environmental data like radiation levels, said Olympic visitors staying near the stadium for a week probably would not be exposed to higher than normal radiation. But he also disagreed with the government’s messaging about Fukushima.
“Communities have been destroyed, there has been no real accountability, the environmental contamination will persist for decades and will require vigilance and conscientious monitoring the entire time,” Brown wrote in an email. “People who accept the radiation measurements and make a rational decision to return still live with a nagging concern and doubt, as if they’re living in a haunted house.”
When Japan was awarded the 2020 Olympics in September 2013, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe assured the IOC that “the situation is under control” in Fukushima.
Four years later, Brown said, public infrastructure projects in destroyed areas have been delayed because construction companies became too focused on gaining Olympic-related work around Tokyo.
Prefectural Gov. Masao Uchibori contended that the area was showing notable progress in reconstruction. Uchibori cited the continual reopening of tourist sites in the area and the growing influence of sports on civic pride.
Large swaths of Fukushima remain uninhabitable, with cleanup at the plant estimated to take up to 40 years and cost almost $200 billion.
Still, some residents see hope in the Olympics.
“If the Olympics doesn’t happen in Fukushima now, the image of Fukushima doesn’t change for a long time,” said Aya Watanabe, a student at Fukushima University who interned in Houston during the summer and saw the impact the Astros’ World Series victory had on morale in the hurricane-stricken city. “It’s a very big chance for Fukushima to change the prospects.”
While teams like the Hopes and Firebonds are still relatively new, their players have already seen how sports can be helpful in Fukushima’s recovery.
Deon Jones, who played college basketball at Monmouth University, is in his first year with the Firebonds. His mother initially worried about him living in Fukushima, but he has enjoyed playing here, learning about the backgrounds and hardships of local teammates like point guard Igari and Shota Kanno, who is from the nearby city of Nihonmatsu. Several times a week, players hold clinics at local schools. A team spokeswoman said Firebonds home games draw about 2,000 fans.
“You’re playing for a little bit more than basketball,” Jones said. “You’re playing for everyone in Fukushima.”