When the ground shook, the ice buckled and the skating-rink building began collapsing around Japanese teenager Yuzuru Hanyu in March 2011, Sochi must’ve seemed a long way off. Survival suddenly trumped Olympic training.
Three years on, the 19-year-old has given his hometown of Sendai, in the heart of the earthquake-devastated Tohoku region, something to cheer about. On Feb. 14, the figure skater won Japan’s first Winter Games gold medal since 2006.
And then Hanyu said something equally extraordinary, when asked by the media about March 11, 2011, a day many of his friends didn’t survive. “It’s a very difficult subject for me to talk about,” he said. “I think my service to all those who were affected by the earthquake starts today.” This, he added: “is going to be the starting point for what I can do for the recovery.”
Well, allow me to offer some advice. Few people take this Olympic spirit stuff seriously. The runaway commercialism of sport has eclipsed what happens on the playing fields. The Games have become “American Idol” with sneakers and snowboards — a showcase for athletes vying for multimillion-dollar endorsement contracts and little else. Yet Hanyu’s comments seem refreshingly selfless and give even us non-Sendai folks reason for hope.
If Hanyu genuinely wants to serve the people of Tohoku he should bring their challenges before the eyes of the world. Sure, he can return home and give the usual inspirational talks to starstruck high school kids — “See, you can achieve anything with hard work!” — or hand out meals at the odd soup kitchen. Or Hanyu can do what’s really needed: demand that Japan’s government stop ignoring Tohoku.
The still-unfolding nuclear crisis at Fukushima is one problem. Another is the 100,000 or so people still living in temporary housing and the communities literally wiped away three years ago by tsunami waves as high as 40.5 meters. Most Japanese have all but forgotten about their plight and appear resigned to letting the Tohoku region stagnate.
There’s plenty of patronizing. Celebrities regularly make the two-hour bullet train ride to the Northeast from Tokyo with film crews. They walk through the rubble, sip tea with displaced locals and kids who haven’t played outside in three years thanks to radiation leaks, and perhaps even shed the odd tear.
But as they, and the eyes of the nation, return to their reasonably cushy, safe lives, the people of Tohoku sense more and more that they’ve become little more than a prop to enable the rest of Japan to show they care.
The focus is now on Tokyo 2020 and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is jetsetting around the globe waxing on about the Olympic spirit. Meanwhile, untold billions of dollars of reconstruction funds are being diverted away from Hanyu’s home region to build the Olympic village and even less attention is being paid to the cleaning up of Fukushima. It means more time looking ahead, not at the tragedy of three years ago.
Hanyu should accept every interview request and speaking invitation he gets and pound one point home: “Don’t forget us.” Japan being Japan, a young athlete can’t expected to morph into an anti-government firebrand. Given how Abe is loading the governing board of national broadcaster NHK with rightwing wackos, Hanyu would probably be censored and ostracized if he did.
But in calm and personal ways, Hanyu should steer every public appearance to the people still living in temporary homes because the government has forgotten them. OK, Anderson Cooper at CNN, you want an interview? Come to Tohoku and, while we’re talking figure skating, we’ll sit in front of municipal buildings still shuttered three years on. Great, Megyn Kelly at Fox News, we’ll do our live shot in front of eerily empty playgrounds and fish markets. Welcome Jon Sopel, let’s have our BBC chat in front of idle construction sites. And yes, it’s great to be here with NHK, Japan’s main news source. Behind me is a hospital kept quite busy by victims of Fukushima.
Olympic champions can be powerful symbols, or they can just get their Nike contracts and live the good life. Hanyu seems sincere in wanting to be the former. All he needs to do is go home and wave to the cameras of the world.
William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist based in Tokyo. Follow him on Twitter at @williampesek