Olympic flame brings hope to region devastated by 2011 earthquake and tsunami 

The Olympic Lantern on board the Sanriku Railway for the Special Display of Flame of Recovery in Iwate prefecture, Japan
The Olympic Lantern on board the Sanriku Railway for the Special Display of "Flame of Recovery" in Iwate prefecture, Japan

The 'flame of recovery' carries hope and encouragement to Tohoku towns

At the Otsuchi community centre in Iwate prefecture, a miniature village model is on display showing what life was like in the town before disaster struck in March 2011.

Otsuchi is one of the many small towns along Japan’s northeast coastline that was heavily damaged by the earthquake and tsunami. Half of the town was engulfed by the tsunami and more than 70 per cent of the homes were destroyed.

“I used to fish here,” reads one note stuck on the small-scale replica village. “People came to buy salmon at my store,” reads another. There are also words flashing back to the moment when the tsunami came. “I saw the first wave of the tsunami here,” one says.

OTSUCHI, JAPAN - MARCH 14:  A general view of what is left of Otsuchi, Japan, after a tsunami wiped away the gas station which caused a fire and burnt down the whole town.
OTSUCHI, JAPAN - MARCH 14: A general view of what is left of Otsuchi, Japan, after a tsunami wiped away the gas station which caused a fire and burnt down the whole town.
Photo by Toshiharu Kato/Japanese Red Cross/IFRC via Getty Images

Nine years after the devastating earthquake, hope is coming back to Otsuchi. As well as the replica model village in the community centre, a library and museum have recently opened in an effort to help people come to terms with the past.

The reconstruction of the town is also ongoing in Otsuchi, and progress is already notable; new buildings have been constructed and key infrastructures restored.

The Special Display of Flame of Recovery at Ishinomaki Minamihama Tsunami Recovery Memorial Park
The Special Display of "Flame of Recovery" at Ishinomaki Minamihama Tsunami Recovery Memorial Park
Tokyo 2020 / Uta MUKUO

The Flame of Recovery

The Olympic flame will bring a message of hope to disaster-affected areas, such as Otsuchi, via a special 'Flame of Recovery' tour that will encompass Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima prefectures in the Tohoku region.

The exhibition started in the Tsunami Recovery Memorial Park in Ishinomaki City, Miyagi, which was a residential area prior to the disaster of 2011. The park is expected to be completed next year.

“The flame will show the recovery status of the three prefectures to people from Japan and abroad,” the president of Tokyo 2020 MORI Yoshiro said at the opening ceremony of the exhibition. “It embodies support to the disaster-stricken areas where people are still facing many difficulties.”

“We shall not forget the lessons we got from the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami where we suffered huge loss,” the Minister for Reconstruction, TANAKA Kazunori added.

OTSUCHI, JAPAN - JUNE 12:  Debris is scattered in Otsuchi, Iwate, Japan, following the devastating earthquake and tsunami.
OTSUCHI, JAPAN - JUNE 12: Debris is scattered in Otsuchi, Iwate, Japan, following the devastating earthquake and tsunami.
Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images

Residents of Ishinomaki City also came to the park to see the Olympic flame.

“It was a really distressful time after the earthquake. We got a lot of help from people from other places in Japan. Although it has been nine years, time feels short. After seeing the flame, I thought to myself ‘let’s do our best’,” a local resident in her 60s said. “The flame is much cooler than I thought,” her grandson noted, who was born only several months before the earthquake.

Wojciech Tomanik, a Polish citizen living in Tokyo, stood in the very front of the queue. Under the advice of his Kendo teacher who came from Miyagi Prefecture, he has repeatedly visited Ishinomaki over the past nine years to see for himself how the reconstruction work has progressed. “I feel Ishinomaki did not stop. It’s progressing. Sometimes I come and I feel this huge dynamic. People are coming back,” he said, referring to a restaurant owner who returned from Tokyo after the earthquake. “Many people living here are connected. They don’t want to get disconnected.”

SL GInga steam locomotive, during the Special Display of Flame of Recovery at Iwate prefecture
SL GInga steam locomotive, during the Special Display of "Flame of Recovery" at Iwate prefecture
Tokyo 2020 / Shugo TAKEMI

Connected railway, connected recovery

The Olympic flame exhibition in Iwate Prefecture has been put on display at the famous Sanriku Railway junction.

Carrying an average of 800,000 passengers every year, Sanriku Railway has been an important means of transportation for local people for generations.

KONNO Junichi, 59, has been working on the railway line for over 30 years and recalled what he witnessed after returning to work just two days after the earthquake. “I did not expect that some parts of the railway’s structure would be flushed away. Even those big bridges were gone.”

Although part of the railway was restored a few days after the disaster, the service was not fully operational until 2014. “When the service was suspended, local residents came to clean the stations and helped with the maintenance. They hoped the train service will be restored as soon as possible,” he added.

The second railway service that carried the Olympic flame at the junction was the SL Ginga Steam Locomotive Express, operating on the line since 2014, and designed on the fiction Night on the Milky Way Train by Iwate-born novelist MIYAZAWA Kenji.

The significance of the Olympic flame touring the area prior to the start of the Games was not lost on one resident. "I think the bright flame will help me light up my heart," he said.