The Grand Start of the Olympic Torch Relay in Japan's northeastern prefecture Fukushima on Thursday marked the beginning of a four month-journey towards the Opening Ceremony of the Tokyo Games on 23 July 2021.
The ceremony was awash in flowers and welcome bloom as the residents of Japan called out to the world a message of warmth and opening.
The event was smaller than originally planned, but it met the moment with a subtle flourish. A spirit of sharing was alive on this hazy morning in Fukushima while the torch makes its way toward the cauldron of the Tokyo Olympic Stadium over the next 121 days.
Iwashimizu Azusa, a key player of the Japanese women's football team that won the World Cup in 2011, was the first runner with the torch.
Fukushima Prefecture was the perfect venue for the torch relay to begin its four-month countdown to the Tokyo Olympics, a year later than expected due to a postponement caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,
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 became a symbol of hardship and resilience. Of tragedy and triumph.
"The torch of Tokyo 2020 will become a bright light for hope for Japanese citizens and citizens around the world and a light at the end of the tunnel," said Hashimoto Seiko, President of the Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee. "For the past year, as the entire world underwent a difficult period, the Olympic flame was kept alive quietly but powerfully. When we started the Relay and the torch was lit, it moved me to tears. I was so happy.”
The promise of hope
The brief starting ceremony was held at J-Village in Fukushima. A group of local residents performed
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 tragedies of 11 March 2011.
It 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 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.
“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.
Iwashimuzu 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.
Nadeshiko – worthy first bearers
Iwashimizu and 14 other members of the Nadeshiko team, the most revered sports heroes in recent Japanese history, arrived in front of the stage in white track suits, red sashes streaked across the front.
They were ready to inspire the nation again as they had ten before when, via a penalty shootout, they triumphed over the mighty and twice-world champion USA in the Women’s World Cup Final.
Iwashimizu – who also won a silver medal at the London 2012 Olympics – took the flame first and off the women went with their coach Sasaki Norio. She was followed by her teammates, in diametric formation out onto the fields of the J-Village and then onto the quiet streets surrounding the center. They smiled and laughed.
“It’s unfortunate the players overseas and Sawa [Homare – captain of the 2011 world champions and that year’s FIFA Women’s Player of the Year] could not be here but we ran for them today as well,” said coach Sasaki. “The J-Village is sacred to the Nadeshiko and I couldn’t be happier the relay is starting here. I’m convinced these Games will inspire Japan. I realise the entire country is under enormous pressure but we want to do our part to help.”
In the days to come, the flame will pass through 10,000 hands in a relay whose theme is ‘Hope Lights our Way.’
It will move through 47 Prefectures and 859 municipalities, bringing the hope of new life and the promise of springtime.