Sasakawa USA 2017 Journalism Fellow: The story behind ‘Would you Play Ball at Fukushima?’

Seth Berkman
January 17, 2018

2017 Sasakawa USA Journalism Fellow Seth Berkman took a reporting trip to Japan in late 2017. Here, he shares the back story to his fellowship and the reporting process behind his second article “Would you Play Ball in Fukushima?”  published in the New York Times on December 29.

In August 2016, I read a story about two Japanese men in Tohoku who learned how to deep-sea dive to search for loved ones who went missing after the 2011 Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami.

With that article in mind, I happened to visit Japan two months later, and was told by citizens from all walks of life — journalists, business persons, academics — that they wished there was more media coverage of Japan in general, that they often feel forgotten in the international news cycle. This made me think more deeply about the story of Fukushima, the decrease and lack of international reporting on Japan, and how often events can leave our conscience years, months, even days after they occur.

When Fukushima was awarded the honor of hosting events as part of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, it was clear that organizers wanted to update the world on the disaster-stricken prefecture through the gloss of one of the world’s most-watched events. Immediately, opposing views of this development were reported on in the local press and conflict was sure to ensue over the next two to three years.

But what role was sports having in Fukushima now?

I applied for the Sasakawa USA Journalism Fellowship to contribute to greater coverage of Fukushima in the United States and, more specifically, to address this question. Through the fellowship, I traveled throughout Fukushima and other parts of Japan in November 2017 to discuss with individuals from various backgrounds about their opinions of sport and about Fukushima becoming a vehicle to rebrand the Fukushima name. With the help of Sasakawa USA and the coordinator that the fellowship provided, I was able to secure meetings with senior government officials such as Governor Masao Uchibori of Fukushima. In Tokyo, I met with academics and anti-nuclear activists. In Fukushima, I interviewed athletes, students, government officials and every day citizens; some who were already excited and wondering how they could buy tickets for Olympics events; others thought nothing could be done to change Fukushima’s perception around the world and more pressing matters remained other than sports. I’m glad that through this fellowship, I was able to report on those viewpoints and help bring them to an international audience.

The story behind “Would you Play Ball in Fukushima?”

Walking out of Fukushima train station in early November, one of the first things a visitor probably noticed was the large amount of sports-related advertising in the town square. Just a few hundred feet from the station, I encountered another image that was just as striking — a solar-powered device that measured radiation levels. I soon learned such machines are prevalent throughout the city.

This contrast would stick with me throughout my reporting trip in Fukushima — the noticeable push for sports and the omnipresence of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that still affects this prefecture on a daily basis.

When it was announced last March that Olympic events would be held in Fukushima during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, one of my first thoughts was of how sports in places like New York and New Orleans have always been spoken of as a tool for healing after events like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. I had read criticism of holding events in Fukushima though, considering what the area was still experiencing less than seven years after the disaster, and so I wanted to travel there to find out what locals’ views were of this controversial issue.

In Fukushima, I soon observed a larger role sports were having even before the Olympics arrive. Particularly in the capital city there were many posters for upcoming road races. Fukushima United, a local soccer club, had banners up in businesses around the city. There were also the Fukushima Hopes and Firebonds, baseball and basketball teams who were created to inspire the community after the disaster.

Talking to politicians and players and coaches of these teams, there was a consensus that success in sports could help change the perception of the name of Fukushima, which had been damaged within Japan and globally. Some locals already had come to believe their home was being looked at around the world in the same vein as Chernobyl.

But to others I talked to, citizens less detached from the sporting world and more critical of this rebranding effort, there was real concern that all of these sporting events were neglecting more critical issues in rebuilding Fukushima.

One key concern was that many visitors for the Olympics might not comprehend the geography of Fukushima. While the events will be held in the city of Fukushima, the prefecture extends farther east to the coast, where much of the more serious damage occurred. I could understand how a foreign tourist might come to Fukushima to watch baseball, see the beauty of the city’s parks and onsens and believe that the environment had returned to normal. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to these audiences, about 50 miles away towns would still be deserted and perhaps never inhabited again.

One key concern was that many visitors for the Olympics might not comprehend the geography of Fukushima. While the events will be held in the city of Fukushima, the prefecture extends farther east to the coast, where much of the more serious damage occurred.

While rehabbing the name of Fukushima seems trivial compared to other obstacles residents have to overcome, it did seem to be an issue important to many. At Fukushima University, I met Yuki Saito, a 20-year-old student who was born in Fukushima and is devoting his studies to improving the perception of produce created in Fukushima, to revitalize an industry that suffered greatly when the rest of Japan thought its products could be unsafe.

Saito also thought a worldwide event like the Olympics would boost Fukushima’s image.

“We need a big event to change the situation around the world,” Saito said. “I think we need Olympics in Fukushima.”

One of Saito’s colleagues, Yuki Tampo, had been with him in Houston during the summer, interning for the local government. There, Tampo recalled people learning she was from Fukushima and replying to her, “You’re dangerous.”

The students were also there during Hurricane Harvey and volunteered with cleanup efforts. Though none of them admitted to being big sports fans, they knew how important the Houston Astros winning the World Series meant to the city, and saw a similar possibility with the Olympics in Fukushima.

For now, the sporting culture in the area is small, but devoted to the community. At a Fukushima Firebonds basketball practice, players stayed afterward to draw cards for local students they had held clinics for. Akinori Iwamura, the manager of the Fukushima Hopes baseball team, is planning to bring a youth team to Hawaii in February, to not only expose the players to the world outside of Fukushima, but also so they can tell their stories of life in Fukushima.

While these actions are commendable, they do not exactly placate the damage and reconstruction still ongoing in Fukushima.

Hajime Matsukubo, who works for the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center in Tokyo, felt that the government’s Olympic push in Fukushima was to make people forget about the 2011 disaster.

“However, the situation is still not stable, but continuing,” Matsukubo said.

The CNIC has discussed with other groups in Japan about how to best approach spreading their message about the Olympics, but Matsukubo was unsure if they would protest the Games. Since the Olympics normally create nationalistic feelings among citizens, he worried that protesting the events would make it seem like they were not only anti-Olympics, but anti-Fukushima.

In meeting with Governor Masao Uchibori, he explained the process of bringing the Olympics to Fukushima and the benefits, while acknowledging work still must be done throughout the prefecture. Uchibori also noted how the Olympics will take place almost 10 years since the disaster.

“We would like to transmit our gratitude from our heart in Japan and overseas through the stage of Olympic games,” he said.

Like in most residents of Japan, Uchibori grew up playing baseball. And the sport appeared to be a thread of life returning to Fukushima, slowly. Saito Nobuyuki, owner of a sporting goods store, said sales of badminton equipment skyrocketed after 2011, as parents were afraid to have their children play outdoor sports.

Added Riku Yukoyama, a high school baseball player from Fukushima: “We are living normally. Americans might think Fukushima is a very dangerous place, but actually it is not. If people come, they will find the good part of Fukushima.”

Whether or not sports should rebrand Fukushima proved to be a polarizing issue, a debate that should continue on as the games gets closer and recovery remains ongoing. Kengo Takaoka, a local resident, perhaps summed it up best when asked if it was good to have all these sporting events in Fukushima, considering the condition of the entire prefecture.

“It’s quite complicated,” Takaoka said. “The politics and etcetera.”

 

Mr. Seth Berkman has been a contributing reporter at the New York Times since 2012. His work often focuses on sports, with a particular interest in examining the perception of Asian athletes in the United States; profile subjects include Japanese basketball players Ramu Tokashiki and Yuta Watanabe, and Japanese hockey goalie Nana Fujimoto.

Prior to working for the Times, Berkman worked at the Jewish Daily Forward and earned a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University. He has been awarded various fellowships that have led to reporting work abroad in Japan, Germany, Austria, Hungary and Canada. He was born in Seoul, South Korea, raised in New Jersey, and currently lives in New York City.

Berkman was the second recipient of the Sasakawa USA Journalism Fellowship and was sponsored by Sasakawa USA to take a 19-day reporting trip to Japan in late 2017. Sasakawa USA partnered with the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) to administer the fellowship as part of ICFS’s “Illuminating Today’s Japan for American Audiences” program.

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