Flame in full bloom on first day of Olympic Torch Relay

Azusa Iwashimizu and members of Nadeshiko Japan, Japan's women's national soccer team, lead the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Torch Relay. (Photo by Kim Kyung-Hoon - Pool/Getty Images)
Azusa Iwashimizu and members of Nadeshiko Japan, Japan's women's national soccer team, lead the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Torch Relay. (Photo by Kim Kyung-Hoon - Pool/Getty Images)

The Grand Start of the Olympic Torch Relay in Fukushima on Thursday 25 March 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 2021.

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 2021) 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."

When we started the Relay and the torch was lit, it moved me to tears. I was so happy.

Tokyo 2020 President Hashimoto Seiko

NARAHA, JAPAN - MARCH 25: Tokyo 2020 President Seiko Hashimoto looks on as actor Satomi Ishihara and Paralympian Aki Taguchi light the celebration cauldron during the opening ceremony ahead of the the first day of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic torch relay at the J Village during the Tokyo Olympic Games torch relay on March 25, 2021 in Naraha, Fukushima, Japan. (Photo by Kim Kyung-Hoon - Pool/Getty Images)
NARAHA, JAPAN - MARCH 25: Tokyo 2020 President Seiko Hashimoto looks on as actor Satomi Ishihara and Paralympian Aki Taguchi light the celebration cauldron during the opening ceremony ahead of the the first day of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic torch relay at the J Village during the Tokyo Olympic Games torch relay on March 25, 2021 in Naraha, Fukushima, Japan. (Photo by Kim Kyung-Hoon - Pool/Getty Images)
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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.

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Highlights from the Grand Start ceremony as the Olympic Torch Relay gets underway in Fukushima.

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.

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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 tracksuits, 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 – at a slow pace suited the early awakenings of springtime. 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. This is, after all, not a sombre event but one that marks the opening of something joyful.

“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 and help liven Japan. I realise the entire country is under enormous pressure but we want to do our part to help.”

And as the Olympics belong, in ways many and real, to all, the torch was passed, first to 16-year-old football goalkeeper OWADA Asato, a high school student in Fukushima who smiled broadly when receiving the flame.

And then it went on to other Japanese torchbearers, picked from over half a million applicants. The Flame moved its way slowly, methodically passing between hands toward the cauldron in the Olympic Stadium.

In the days to come, the flame will pass through 10,000 hands in a relay whose theme is, aptly given the times and pandemic and hardship all over the world, ‘Hope Lights our Way.’ First it will arrive in Tochigi on Sunday and then Gunma on 30 March. It will move through 47 Prefectures and 859 municipalities, bringing the hope of new life and springtime in the glow of this most ancient flame – one peculiarly resistant to extinguishing.