MINAMI-SOMA, Fukushima Prefecture--Under the hazy rays of an early winter sun, 2,400 running buffs from around the country gathered at a track in the Haramachi district of central Minami-Soma, Fukushima Prefecture, on Dec. 2.
They came for the 25th anniversary of the annual "Nomaoi-no-sato health marathon" races, but the mood was much different from previous years.
An accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant following the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami and concerns over radiation contamination had forced the cancellation of last year's event, and many were opposed to its resumption this year.
The event was also being held exactly two weeks before a pivotal Lower House general election, where candidates were arguing the future of the nation's nuclear power policy.
On Dec. 2, the aftermath of the Fukushima accident was foremost on the minds of officials and participants.
At the opening ceremony, Minami-Soma Mayor Katsunobu Sakurai stated that he "wants participants to dispel people's concerns about health hazards."
Sakurai garnered global recognition when he made an online plea spotlighting the plight of his city's residents in the early days of the nuclear crisis following the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011.
He was later chosen among Time magazine's 100 most influential people in the world.
"People who participated in this event are all forward-looking. I hope they will demonstrate our will to fully rebuild this city," Sakurai told AJW before running in the half marathon.
The Haramachi district is located about 25 kilometers north of the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co.
Following the meltdown of the plant reactors, the city instructed residents to evacuate, but things have seemingly returned to normal since the district was located outside the mandatory evacuation zone of a 20-km radius around the plant.
Still, the city's plan to resurrect the races in December last year faced extensive opposition, and schools concerned over radiation hazards to their pupils refused to send teams. The entire event was canceled.
Residents were again divided this year over whether the city should host the annual races.
On Internet message boards, opponents posted such messages such as "it is abnormal to allow 2,000 people to run through a radiation-contaminated area," the health marathon races will "only exacerbate participants' health" and "don't allow children to run."
A group of residents petitioned the mayor to cancel the event, saying it will "only increase the health risks to children and young people."
To get the races back on track, the city conducted radiation monitoring throughout the courses and made the data public. It underscored the event's significance in its official slogan "pray for recovery through sport."
On Dec. 2, the participants, including 430 elementary students, ran in competitions from 1.5-km races to a half marathon of 21 km.
Among the runners, Yuma Koizumi, an 18-year-old high school senior, finished third in the 5-km race, proudly wearing the bib of his Odaka Technical High School.
The area name Odaka has special meaning to Minami-Soma residents. The district is located at the southern end of the city and designated as the mandatory evacuation area until April.
The district's residents are still not allowed to stay in their homes overnight, and most of the businesses, schools and infrastructures remain closed.
The original campus of Koizumi's high school remains off limit as well, and it now operates in prefab, temporary school buildings in the Haramachi district.
"A lot of memories of despair and hope from the past two years came to mind while running," Koizumi said, looking back on his race. "Unfortunately, all my juniors have no experience of studying at the original campus.
"I will continue to compete as an amateur runner even after I graduate with the hope that I can help preserve the name of Odaka Technical."
Thanks to the city's decontamination work, the radiation level near the finish line was as low as lower than 0.3 microsievert per hour. In a bush only about 30 meters away, however, a Geiger counter measured a level of 0.7 microsievert.
As this level of radiation is believed to pose no health risk even on an annual basis, the city plans to host the running competition next year. But the city still has the much greater task of addressing residents' general fears of radiation contamination.
The argument over whether the city should host the athletic event underscores various layers of division among residents, created by the unprecedented nuclear disaster.
It has become increasingly difficult for residents to find a common vision for the future, as they are divided between people who have been allowed to return home and those whose neighborhoods have been declared uninhabitable.
Mothers and others who are most sensitive to radiation exposure opted to flee to areas outside Fukushima and start a new life there. Family and community ties have been cut, and residents are struggling to find common goals.
Among residents of the Odaka district, there is a widening gap in the way of thinking between residents who want to promptly return home and those who want to build a new life outside the district. Compensation that is currently being given by TEPCO to evicted residents has only been complicating the matter.
The Enei Foundry was among the first group of businesses that resumed operation in Odaka. After the city eased the eviction order for Odaka in April, the company applied for operational permission and resumed production in July.
It is possibly the "factory in operation closest to the nuclear plant," said its manager, Takahiko Enei. It is located 1.5 km northwest of the border checkpoint with Namie, which remains off limits.
The crippled nuclear plant is located only 10 km south from the checkpoint, at which police officers stand guard and regulate entry.
After the accident, major companies headquartered outside Fukushima Prefecture announced they would permanently close their plants in Odaka.
Due to the eviction order, local small and midsize manufacturers were also forced to halt operations or relocate their plants.
Enei Foundry also temporarily relocated its production lines to Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture, and Iwaki, Ibaraki Prefecture. Even after its return to the original factory in Odaka, sales remain at about 40 percent of pre-earthquake levels, as it lost some clients while it operated in remote plants.
The 60 percent gap is offset by the compensation provided by TEPCO. If businesses can show a causal effect of nuclear accident-related damage to their businesses, TEPCO pays them compensation, based on the Act on Compensation for Nuclear Damages.
Aside from business damages, each resident evicted from the mandatory eviction zone receives 100,000 yen ($1,200) in compensation for psychological damages every month.
But at one point, Takahiko Enei realized that the compensation system was actually damaging his entrepreneurship. That was why he resumed operations at his factory ahead of other manufacturers in Odaka.
"The system will end sooner or later after the eviction order is completely removed. It is dangerous for a business operator to become reliant on TEPCO's compensation," he said.
Enei pointed out that many Odaka residents did not welcome the resumption of his factory, as they think it will give a reason for the city to completely rescind the eviction order and for TEPCO to cut back on compensation.
The entry restriction that lasted until April has left decontamination work and infrastructure recovery incomplete in Odaka.
Evicted residents who rely on TEPCO's compensation say that early rescission of the eviction order will only exacerbate their predicaments.
The district is yet to have its water service and sewage system restored. The head of a local wrecking company said that the industry estimates there are around 1,000 buildings that were severely damaged by the quake and tsunami and are waiting for wrecking balls.
Since April, only 30 of the buildings have been demolished, as they are contaminated with radiation and the work requires about five times more time than usual.
The decontamination operations in the district, which the central government is responsible for, has not shown any progress as the city is struggling to create temporary disposal sites for radiation-contaminated waste.
Shizuka Kume, whose family operated a store selling windows near Odaka's central business district, said many residents are concerned that the city is rushing to rescind the evacuation order, although Odaka remains virtually an uninhabitable area.
"It is their fear that the city is hurrying to remove regulations one after another," she said. "It will only benefit TEPCO, not the residents."
While the general election pending on Dec. 16, many Odaka residents said they are struggling to figure out how they will benefit politically.
Kume, 59, who currently lives in Soma, Fukushima Prefecture, engages in volunteer work to distribute free water and food to local mothers with infants and expectant mothers.
Despite the municipal governments' claim that area tap water is safe, about 550 mothers line up for bottled water every week.
"When you cannot trust your government, how can you cast your vote for national politics?" Kume asked.
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