Photo/Illutration Reporters from foreign media organizations question Ayako Masuda at the J-Village sporting complex in August 2019. (Ari Hirayama)

A former athlete will be on the sidelines when the Olympic torch relay kicks off in a prefecture where she rose to stardom and felt she had lied for years to the public.

Ayako Masuda, 44, once thought about joining the torch relay that starts on March 26 at the J-Village sporting complex in Fukushima Prefecture. But her employer’s association with the Fukushima nuclear disaster quickly dashed the idea.

Masuda trained at the J-Village as a member of the Mareeze women’s soccer team sponsored by Tokyo Electric Power Co. The team’s name combined portions of “marine” and “breeze.”

When TEPCO Mareeze was established in February 2005, Masuda joined as a goalkeeper. She recalled how fortunate she felt to train on natural turf in the middle of the day. Other teams she once played for were forced to practice on dirt fields and only at night.

TEPCO Mareeze played mostly in the top division of the Nadeshiko League for women’s soccer in Japan.

The local broadcaster introduced team players in a regular TV program. Residents would often recognize Masuda and offer words of encouragement when she walked around.

At that time, Masuda worked in public relations at the Hirono thermal power plant also in Fukushima Prefecture and guided visitors around the facility. Her afternoons were devoted to soccer practice.

After she retired from soccer in 2009, Masuda continued to work for TEPCO.

She was at her desk on March 11, 2011, when the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami struck, triggering the triple meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.

The next day, Masuda watched in disbelief as TV news reports showed an explosion at the Fukushima plant.

As a guide, Masuda had told visitors that nuclear power was safe, and she herself believed it.

But the disaster at the Fukushima plant made her feel that she had spread a lie over several years.

From the end of April 2011, Masuda worked at an emergency headquarters set up at the Hirono town hall to accept applications for temporary compensation payments.

She apologized to the applicants because she felt TEPCO was responsible for forcing them to leave their hometowns.

Some people angrily told her, “Look what TEPCO has done.”

But those who recognized her from her soccer playing days told her, “I may hate TEPCO, but I love Mareeze.”

Others consoled her and said she was not to blame.

Masuda said she was almost brought to tears when she saw what had become of J-Village. The complex had been transformed into a center for distributing relief supplies. Sand and gravel covered the pitch, and temporary structures were built on the site.

In September 2011, Mareeze suspended its operations.

By April 2019, J-Village had returned to its former self as a sporting complex. The natural turf was reinstalled and soccer practices resumed.

One month from now, it will serve as the launching pad for the Olympic torch relay.

Masuda floated the idea of carrying the torch but dropped the thought when she realized she worked for the company that has been widely blamed for causing the nuclear disaster.

Members of the Nadeshiko Japan team that won the Women’s World Cup in 2011 have been selected to run the first leg of the relay in Fukushima Prefecture.

Masuda played with and against many of the members. Although she was busy in 2011 dealing with the aftermath of the nuclear accident, Masuda watched the World Cup.

“I was deeply encouraged by what they accomplished,” she said.

Masuda now works at TEPCO’s Fukushima No. 2 nuclear plant handling reconstruction of that area.

Whenever the town government submits a request, she helps to plant rice seedlings, harvest the crops and cut the grass around the paddies.

She plans to take a few hours off to watch the Nadeshiko Japan members carry the torch because “I want to see them again,” she said.

Masuda also wants to see how this year’s Nadeshiko Japan team fares at the Tokyo Olympics. She was lucky enough to win a ticket in the lottery for the women’s soccer final at the Games.

The Olympic torch’s nationwide journey will end at the cauldron set up at the National Stadium in Tokyo.

“I hope the Japanese team can climb to the top of the medal podium,” she said.