Track cyclist Kazunari Watanabe is hoping his upcoming appearance in the London Olympics will help keep the media spotlight on his hometown, which was evacuated after last year’s nuclear disaster.
The home of Watanabe’s parents in Futaba, Fukushima Prefecture, is just three kilometers from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant that was damaged in the Great East Japan Earthquake. Most Futaba residents are still unable to return to their hometown due to radiation concerns.
Watanabe, 28, is a professional keirin cyclist. He took up cycling when he was a freshman in high school at the recommendation of his father, Yoshiyuki. The elder Watanabe felt that keirin would give his son a chance to earn money in a town where jobs were scarce.
Yoshiyuki Watanabe ran a tatami store, catering mainly to people working for Tokyo Electric Power Co., which operated the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant. But demand for tatami mats has been weakening over the years as more and more Japanese homes become Westernized. Landing a job with TEPCO was also difficult so the elder Watanabe, now 63, steered his son into keirin racing in the hopes of earning a steady paycheck.
Kazunari Watanabe made his keirin debut at the age of 19 after training on roads surrounding the now-damaged power plant. He took up track cycling after watching Toshiaki Fushimi--another cyclist from Fukushima Prefecture--compete at the 2004 Athens Olympics. At the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Watanabe helped Japan to a sixth-place finish in the team sprint event.
In the fall of 2010, with hopes of making it to the London Games, Watanabe moved his training base to Izu in Shizuoka Prefecture, where the environment is more suitable for cycling. Six months later, his hometown was devastated by the magnitude-9.0 quake and nuclear accident resulting from the ensuing tsunami.
Watanabe’s family home tilted to one side due to the large earthquake. His mother, grandmother and sister’s family, who have a baby, evacuated from their homes with just the clothes on their backs. They first evacuated to a nearby junior high school, then to Kawamata, Fukushima Prefecture. From there, they moved to Yokohama, where they had relatives.
Kazunari Watanabe, meanwhile, scoured the Internet and watched TV news broadcasts to gather as much information as he could on the nuclear accident. He urged his family to get out of Fukushima.
Understandably, Watanabe was unable to concentrate at the World Championships held shortly after the quake. When a friend living in an evacuation center e-mailed him to say, “We’re going to hang in there … we won’t lose,” Watanabe felt he had to do his best, too.
“Everyone in the disaster area is rooting for me,” he told himself. “I have to pick up my game.”
Most Futaba residents still live in various parts of Japan some 14 months after the quake. Watanabe’s parents now live in a public housing unit in Yamato, Kanagawa Prefecture, where they have no close friends.
When Watanabe won his ticket to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the entire town of Futaba celebrated. Local arcades put up banners congratulating the young cyclist on his feat and neighbors printed T-shirts showing their support. But this time around, securing an Olympic ticket proved bittersweet for the Watanabes.
“It’s sad not having anyone nearby to share this joy with,” says Watanabe’s mother, Tomoko, 58. “This is what it means to be forced out of your hometown.”
She does add that she received some congratulatory phone calls from people saying how proud they were to have lived in Futaba.
Kazunari Watanabe still has his concerns, of course. Several years ago, he bought land near his parents’ home in Futaba and built a training ground for himself. But that land is now likely to be designated by the government as part of a contaminated area former residents won’t be allowed to return to.
“I have some frustrations that I don’t know what to do with,” says Watanabe. “But I know I can’t be angry about this forever. Now that media reports on the nuclear accident are decreasing, I hope that the focus on me will give renewed attention to the plight of my hometown.”
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