TOKYO: The Tokyo 2020 Olympic Torch Relay kicked off Thursday in Fukushima, Japan. The grand start of the Olympic Torch Relay marks the start of the Olympic flame's journey across all of Japan's 47 prefectures, before it arrives in Tokyo for the opening of the Olympic Games on 23 July.
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The Olympic Torch Relay began in the J-Village national football training facility in Naraha, Fukushima. The first torchbearers were the Nadeshiko Japan women's football team, who won the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup. They took the flame from the Grand Start to the second torchbearer, 16-year-old Fukushima native Owada Asato. It will then continue onwards across the host nation, visiting 859 municipalities en route to its final destination - the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo.
Thursday's activities come just over a year after the Olympic flame first touched down in Japan, on 20 March 2020 at Matsushima Airbase in Miyagi, after being lit in Greece at Ancient Olympia. Following the postponement of the Games by a year to 2021, the Olympic flame found a home at the new Olympic Museum in Tokyo, and from there it visited 14 Prefectures and 86 municipalities, welcomed with great enthusiasm by the Japanese public and media wherever it went. It is estimated that the flame received over 62,000 visitors.
The Grand Start of the Olympic Torch Relay in Fukushima on Thursday brought with it a sense of new beginnings and the promise of springtime, as the Olympic Flame began its long journey across Japan before it sparks the cauldron at the Olympic Stadium at the climax of the Opening Ceremony of the Tokyo Olympic Games on 23 July.
With the arrival of spring comes the promise of new life
And after the hardships of winter – both real and metaphorical – the Grand Start of the Olympic Torch Relay on Thursday 25 March was awash in flowers and welcome bloom as the residents of Japan called out to the world, a year later than expected due to a postponement caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, a message of warmth and opening.
The ceremony marked the start of the Olympic Torch Relay that leads the way up to the Opening Ceremony (on 23 July) of this summer’s Olympic Games. The event was smaller than originally planned, but it met the moment with a subtle flourish. A spirit of sharing was alive on a hazy morning in Fukushima as it will be, surely, over the course of the next 121 days while the torch, lit by the rays of the sun at the Temple of Hera in Greece, makes its way, deliberately and purposefully, toward the cauldron of the Tokyo Olympic Stadium. There it will preside from its perch over the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.
Fukushima Prefecture was the perfect venue for the torch to begin its four-month journey to Tokyo. The area was devastated by the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 2011 and the effects of the ensuing tsunami and nuclear disaster are still felt there to this day. The city, though, has become a symbol of hardship and resilience. Of tragedy and triumph.
“I feel like it’s all finally underway,” enthused Hashimoto Seiko, president of the Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee. “It so happens these Games were postponed and as a result, overlapped with the 10-year anniversary of the earthquake. I couldn’t be more grateful if we got through the 121 days in one piece."
Songs of hope and glory
The Japanese anthem, a solemn and soulful tune, was performed at the start of the day’s events and it was followed by the Olympic anthem – soaring and ambitious as ever.
The blowing of conch shells – that most natural instrument of the sea – by local performers called to the world beyond the waves. The thudding of Taiko drums shook the air. Local schoolchildren sang and flags waved under the dome of the J-Village. And before the torch itself was lit, a group of children from Fukushima, straight-backed and serious in their undertaking, sang a song full of weight of despair called Hana Wa Saku (Flowers will Bloom), there under the translucent roof of the training center that let in the thick morning light like a greenhouse.
It was this very same J-Village that became a base for the Japanese government as it tried to tackle the meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in the aftermath of the horrors of 11 March 2011. It only re-opened as a football facility in 2019, and stands now as an example of the steady building back from those dark days that followed the earthquake that took the lives of so many thousands in Japan.
The J-Village was also the venue where the 2011 Japan women’s national football team (known as the Nadeshiko in honour of the pink mountain flower prized in the country as a symbol of beauty and strength) trained ahead of what would become the biggest achievement of any Japanese team in international competition.
Japanese football lit up a dark 2011
Their World Cup victory in 2011 over the United States in Frankfurt – just months after the earth shook and the seas rose and so many in Japan found themselves in despair – is remembered to this day as a marker of morale for the country. The players of that 2011 team, like Sawa Homare, Miyama Aya and Maruyama Karina, are all hailed as national heroes – and for very good reason.
“I spent five years in Fukushima and I feel like half of me was made here,” said Maruyama. “I thought about the people here as I ran today.”
“I spent a lot of time at the J-Village with the Nadeshiko,” said Sameshima Aya. “This place is so special to me and I was honoured to be one of the first torchbearers, to help start the process of offering hope.”
It was fitting that these heroes of 2011 would receive the Olympic flame first on this day of new beginnings in Fukushima, where the seeds of their world-beating victory in 2011 were planted.
Iwashimizu Azusa took the flame first, both the torch and the cauldron reminiscent of the cherry blossom, Japan’s traditional symbol of springtime and its many promises.