Takayuki Ueno looks out over an empty field along the coast in Fukushima, Japan, and points toward the ocean.
“There used to be houses here, and trees,” he says, and then points in another direction. “And over there, too.”
The wind whips across the open space. A small, new graveyard sits in an adjacent plot. Those houses were where his neighbors once lived.
This region was devastated nine years ago when the largest earthquake in Japan’s recorded history triggered a massive tsunami. The giant wave washed away nearly 20,000 people, including thousands in Fukushima. It also hit the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station right down the coast, causing a partial meltdown that sent plumes of radioactive particles for miles. The area has been trying to rebuild ever since.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe billed this year’s Olympics as the “recovery games,” hoping to highlight the massive cleanup efforts by the Japanese government along this coast. To drive that point home, the torch relay was supposed to start in Fukushima on Thursday, run by some of the people most affected by the events of 2011. The runners would weave the flame through the former nuclear exclusion zones.
Now both the Olympics and the torch relay are postponed due to the global spread of COVID-19, and Fukushima’s chance to have the world’s attention for a celebration instead of disaster is on hold.
Ueno, a 46-year-old wheat farmer, was supposed to run the torch on Thursday through his hometown of Minamisoma. His current home, down the street from the empty field he’s standing in, is one of the only buildings around. His old house used to be here too.
Inside the current house, a shrine for his mother, father and two small kids sits in the living room — all family members he lost in the tsunami in 2011. The shrine has toys and drawings, and stuffed animals poke out from behind furniture throughout the room.
“Kotarou loved stuffed animals,” Ueno says in Japanese with a smile, talking about his son. “We’ve been buying more, since his spirit still lives here.”
Like many people in this area, Ueno has a heartbreaking story about what happened on March 11, 2011. On that day, he was out working in the rice fields, and his then-pregnant wife Kiho was away from the house. His 3-year-old son was home with Ueno’s parents. His 8-year-old daughter was at school.
After the earthquake hit, he rushed home to check that everyone was OK, and then returned to work — only for the tsunami to hit an hour later. When he finally made it back, the entire first floor of his house was gone. He later found out his daughter had returned home from school right before it hit.
“Nobody was there,” Ueno remembers. “There was no sound. Nothing. It was just me and the wreckage. I can’t describe how it felt.” He gets up to try to look up a word in Google Translate, but then sits back down.
There are no words, he says.
He sent Kiho to an evacuation shelter, and spent the next several days searching for bodies. When the nuclear plant exploded down the coast, he didn’t even think about it.
“I didn’t have time to think about how I felt, I was obsessed with finding my children. I searched everywhere,” he says.
He found his mother’s and daughter’s bodies in the backyard. He never found his father or his son. It wasn’t until a few months later that the thought of radiation even occurred to him, but the tsunami has always been the most devastating.
“People forget the tsunami came here,” Ueno says. “The equation is Fukushima equals nuclear, and people forget. I lost my whole family. I want people to think very seriously about this.”
He says that’s why he wanted to run the torch — to make people remember.
This part of Fukushima, in the area around the Daiichi power plant, is still suffering from high levels of radiation. Only a tiny fraction of the population has returned, most over the age of 60, and many streets still sit empty and deserted, left exactly as they were nine years ago tumbled by the earthquake and rotting. It’s not the same Fukushima that it was before the disaster.
But Ueno is committed to making it livable again. He spends his weekends leading a volunteer group to help rebuild his town. He still clears wreckage from the tsunami and travels to other areas to help out when floods happen. And he’s started a tradition of planting a maze of bright yellow flowers every year and opening it to local children in the spring.
The bright yellow flowers are just beginning to bloom, but it’s still unclear if people will flock to the maze this year. Crowds and gatherings have been strongly discouraged in Japan since February.
The Olympic flame, originally supposed to be a light of hope for this region, will stay in Japan for the next year. It’s already being referred to as a light of hope for the end of coronavirus instead.
Ueno says much like 2011, this situation is out of his control.
“I’m disappointed, I’ve surrendered to it all,” he says.
He hopes that next year, he’ll get his chance to run.
Kat Lonsdorf (@lilkat_bigworld) is NPR’s Above the Fray fellow. The fellowship is sponsored by the John Alexander Project, which supports foreign reporting in undercovered parts of the world. Follow the fellowship on Instagram (@thejohnaproject) and Twitter (@thejohnaproject).