Photo/IllutrationConstruction work continues in Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, to raise the land surface. (Ryosuke Yamamoto)

Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part series on preparations toward the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.


Three disaster-hit prefectures whose plight was highlighted in Tokyo’s bid to host the Olympics are feeling left out of the hoopla and anticipation over next year’s Games.The Olympic-related campaign to reconstruct Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima prefectures started three months after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami devastated the Tohoku region on March 11, 2011.

Then Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara indicated in a policy speech to the metropolitan assembly that rebuilding the Tohoku region would be a key aspect in Tokyo’s campaign to host the 2020 Summer Olympics.

Eight years down the road, the prefectures are feeling forgotten and wondering if reconstruction was meant only for Tokyo, rather than their own local communities.

Masaharu Onodera, 64, secretary-general of an organization of construction companies in Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, was asked for his thoughts about what has been called “the reconstruction Olympics.”

“It sounds like something going on in a foreign nation,” he said.

Part of the reason for feeling forgotten is that other natural disasters have hit various parts of Japan since Tokyo was chosen as host in September 2013, such as torrential rains and flooding in Hiroshima in 2014 as well as earthquakes in Kumamoto in 2016 and in Hokkaido in 2018.

In addition, the construction work in Tokyo on Olympic venues and other infrastructure has led to worker shortages and pushed up the cost of building materials in the Tohoku region.

The organizing committee for the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics held a liaison council meeting in February to support reconstruction in Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima prefectures. The council was set up to share reconstruction measures among the central government and prefectural governments.

It was only the second time that the council met, following an inaugural meeting in July 2014.

“‘The reconstruction Olympics’ is the fountainhead for seeking the Games,” said Toshiro Muto, 75, director-general of the organizing committee. “We have never forgotten that fact for one day.”

But many living and working in the three prefectures feel they have been ignored.

Since summer 2018, Onodera’s construction company has been having problems purchasing bolts that are vital for his work. In the past, the parts would be delivered about six weeks after an order was placed. But it now often takes about six months.

The company has been forced to delay commissioned work to make bridge supports more quake-resistant.

Other companies have said redevelopment work in the Tokyo metropolitan area and construction of the athletes’ village has caused the shortage of parts in the Tohoku region.

Large portions of Rikuzentakata were destroyed by the 2011 tsunami, and work continues to heighten the land for new buildings.

Total construction costs are estimated at 160 billion yen ($1.4 billion), around the same level for the new National Stadium, where the Opening Ceremony for the Olympics will be held.

The National Stadium is expected to be completed on schedule at the end of November. The same cannot be said for the Rikuzentakata project, whose completion date has been pushed back two years beyond the initially planned end of fiscal 2018.

“It feels like we’re being told that delays in the disaster-stricken areas are all right, but the new National Stadium has to be completed on schedule,” Onodera said.

Worker shortages and the high cost of construction materials have led to failed bidding on public works projects in the Tohoku region because municipal governments and companies are so far apart on estimated expenses.

Despite the many disappointments felt by those in the region, some people are holding out hope that something good will come out of the Tokyo Olympics.

One area of focus is the expected large number of tourists who will come to Japan for the Summer Games.

Officials in Tohoku hope to capitalize on that occasion to heighten recognition of their region and to erase any lingering negative publicity connected to the aftermath of the natural disasters.

The Tohoku region is still not high on the destination list of many foreign tourists.

Foreign tourists in 2018 spent about 90 million visitor-nights at accommodations in Japan. But for the six prefectures of the Tohoku region, the figure was only 1.4 million visitor-nights.

“(The Olympics) will be an excellent opportunity to have tourists learn about the Tohoku region,” Junichi Konno, an executive with the Tohoku Kanko Suishin Kiko (Tohoku tourism promotion organization), said. “We want to expand our tourism market by spreading the word about various attractions through social networking services.”

The Tokyo Olympic organizing committee plans to help out by arranging media tours to the three hardest-hit prefectures for foreign journalists during the Summer Games. The aim is to have those journalists report to the world about progress being made in reconstruction.

(This article was compiled from reports by Ryosuke Yamamoto, Satoshi Okamoto and Ari Hirayama.)