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Japan's Olympic dream disrupts disaster recovery

Pepi Ronalds |  05 March 2017


This week marks the anniversary of 3.11 — the triple disaster (earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown) that hit northern Japan on 11 March 2011. The event took over 18,000 lives, and initially displaced 470,000 people. Six years on, 127,000 are still without a permanent home.

Asuto Nagamachi temporary housing units in the city of SendaiSome live with family, others have the relative comfort of temporary private apartments, many live in thin-walled, damp, and cramped temporary housing units. All of these accommodations were only ever short-term solutions, intended for just a couple of years. Yet on this sixth anniversary, over a quarter of those originally displaced still await permanent homes.

The disaster was unprecedented, and Japanese governments had to act without a guidebook. Delays have been caused by the sheer physical scope, pre-existing regulations and other restrictions. These are understandable, to a degree. But what is less acceptable are the disruptions caused by the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

3.11 hit the region in a period where populations, local economies and the construction industry were in steady decline. Then, in a single afternoon, demand changed radically. The tsunami inundated over 500 square km of coastline, washing away entire neighbourhoods.

And while Japan's strict building standards mitigated any significant damage by the earthquake itself, there were widespread minor damages to be addressed. The entire nation's construction resources were mobilised, but the area affected was vast.

Olympics are well known for their infrastructure demands — most of which require the same kinds of resources that communities affected by 3.11 need. The bid was awarded in 2013 — a year when 313,000 were still displaced. The competition for construction resources has resulted in a 30 per cent increase in construction costs. Many in affected areas believe they saw a correlation between the Olympics announcement and a reduction of trucks and construction workers in their districts.

And while Tokyo's original visions (such has Zaha Hadid's Olympic Stadium) have been shelved in favour of existing facilities, the monetary cost of the Olympics has ballooned. Originally budgeted at 734 billion yen, current projections anticipate between 1.6 and 1.8 trillion.

Reconstruction has been miserably slow. Delays have knock-on effects; people give up waiting and resettle somewhere else, then populations decline further, then low numbers excuse the slow implementation of infrastructure, and communities find themselves trying to rebuild without basic social services such as transport, post offices, supermarkets, convenience stores and banks.


"Kizuna is a Japanese word that means bonds between people. In a 2016 survey of 1000 survivors respondents felt that kizuna with people outside of the disaster zone was 43 per cent weaker than the previous year."


'The 2020 Games will serve as a spiritual and physical symbol of Japan's recovery from a national tragedy,' opines the Tokyo 2020 website. It's true that sport brings people together in difficult times, providing physical activity and emotional inspiration. In support of recovery the Japanese Olympic Committee holds events for young people in affected communities. By December 2016, 100 Olympic Festas were staged. In this small way, the Olympics have brought smiles to faces. But a single day of activity is soon undermined when children return to temporary housing, with nowhere to call home, and nowhere to play or exercise.

Trans-national nation branding is a major part of Olympics hosting. The Japanese government was well aware that 3.11 had negative effects on international perceptions of Japanese products, exports and tourism. The 2020 Olympics may improve perceptions of the Japanese brand, and even make positive contributions to the economy. But this economic benefit will likely be offset (in the short term at least) by the huge financial investment required to host the games. Why not put that investment into progressive programs to finish rebuilding, revitalise and revive communities devastated by 3.11?

Olympics hosts also aspire to creating national unity. But slow and unnecessary reconstruction caused by competing resources is more likely to fracture any notions of national cohesion. Those awaiting housing are understandably frustrated and feeling forgotten. Kizuna is a Japanese word that was popular in the immediate aftermath of 3.11. It means bonds between people. In a 2016 survey of 1000 survivors (by Japan's national broadcaster, NHK) respondents felt that kizuna with people outside of the disaster zone was 43 per cent weaker than the previous year. Half of them felt that 'construction is going more slowly than expected' and 30 per cent felt that there was no progress in the reconstruction of their hometown.

Rikuzentakata had its entire central business district engulfed in the tsunami and, like all towns, has been working hard towards recovery. Speaking to Reuters in 2016 its mayor Futoshi Toba expressed concerns about reconstruction and Olympic construction overlapping. 'Why did the government want the Olympics in 2020? I think they could easily have hosted them four years later,' he said.


Pepi RonaldsPepi Ronalds is researching and writing a non-fiction manuscript about rebuilding and recovery in Japan after 3.11. Her work has been published in Meanjin, Arena, The Lifted Brow and more.

Pictured: The Asuto Nagamachi temporary housing units in the city of Sendai in June 2016. At that time most residents had been relocated to permanent 'recovery' housing. Sendai was able to provide more permanent housing sooner than in other places, due to its size, and the fact that its municipal offices weren't inundated. 


Pepi Ronalds


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Submitted comments

This is a very important update on Japan following the Fukushima disaster of 2011. This event showed us yet again(remember Chernobyl and Three Mile Island) that nuclear energy is not a cheap nor a very clean option for the production of the world's energy needs. It is to be hoped that the Japanese people whose lives were dramatically changed by this event will get back to some normality very soon. I think that the comments by Rikuzentakata Mayor Futoshi Toba, when he expressed concerns about the overlapping of the reconstruction of the town and the Olympic construction, as very pertinent. There was a very sound case for hosting the Olympic Games after the reconstruction had occurred.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock 07 March 2017

Just may be olympics. Need to stay in Greece and each particular country chip in for the upkeep of the stadiums and Athletes. Villages. Surely be cheaper in the long run and nations dont have to use corruption and other devils Methods to gain the winning. City

Irena mangone 07 March 2017

why no mention of all the tonnes of radioactive water being dumped into the Pacific Ocean? won't that be picked up in the food chain and onto kitchens and plates? have the Olympic officials taken into consideration the health of their young olympians, including especially the Japanese? (or will they have official tasters at every refectory and scientists with geiger counters checking every kitchen and restaurant in the olympic villages?)

Walter Paul KOMARNICKI 07 March 2017

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