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Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said that the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics this summer will “go down in history” if Japan can hold the events in defiance of the new coronavirus pandemic.

During his second tenure as prime minister, Tokyo in 2013 won its bid to host the quadrennial sporting events as the country hoped to leverage the games to promote the reconstruction of areas devastated by the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, and the subsequent severe nuclear accident. The Summer Olympics and Paralympics, originally scheduled for 2020, were postponed to this year due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The Abe administration “was able to play a certain role” in postdisaster reconstruction, he said in a recent interview ahead of the 10th anniversary of the disaster. The March 11 quake and tsunami mainly damaged the Tohoku region, including Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, and led to an unprecedented triple meltdown at Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.

Abe, who became prime minister for the second time in December 2012, stepped down in September last year due to illness. Abe, a member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, remains a lawmaker of the House of Representatives. His first tenure as prime minister lasted for only a year, until September 2007.

When the natural and nuclear disasters happened, Sadakazu Tanigaki, then leader of the LDP, which was an opposition party at the time, fully cooperated with the administration of the now-defunct Democratic Party of Japan in the effort to contain the nuclear crisis.

Then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan “should have declared a nuclear emergency right away,” but he was “slow to do that” because the DPJ, which grabbed power from the LDP in 2009, was not fully accustomed to managing the government, Abe recalled.

“In addition, the party had no network to collect opinions from people on the ground and lacked the ability to run the administration,” Abe said. “This was the starting point for the LDP’s return to power.”

Abe said that after coming back as prime minister, he tried to destroy bureaucratic sectionalism and adopted a hands-on approach to accelerate postdisaster reconstruction. “I instructed all of my Cabinet ministers to work as if they were all in the post of reconstruction minister,” he added.

Challenges included the decommissioning of the crippled Tepco nuclear power plant in Fukushima, promotion of the return home of people evacuated due to the nuclear accident and purchases of land on higher terrain for relocating residential areas to avoid damage from a possible future tsunami, Abe said.

The Abe administration also had to tackle harmful rumors related to the nuclear accident, which were a stumbling block to reconstruction, he said.

Abe stressed that his government was able to advance work related to the residential area relocation to higher ground, construction of public housing for people affected by the disaster and restoration of transportation infrastructure such as roads and railways. It was also able to lift evacuation orders for areas affected by radiation from the Fukushima No. 1 plant, except for “difficult-to-return” areas, Abe said.

He also noted that the value of goods shipments from and the number of tourists to disaster-hit areas have recovered to exceed the levels before the disaster.

But many afflicted people are still in need of psychological care, Abe said, while underlining the importance of creating new industries to revive the economy of disaster-hit areas and stepping up efforts to help nuclear evacuees return to their hometowns.

“As the country’s prime minister at the time, I was aware that the issue of radioactive water at the plant was a challenge that must not be pushed back,” Abe said.

“I wanted the government to make a responsible decision at the right time and give an explanation and message, including on safety, to the international community,” Abe said of the water, which has been kept in tanks at the premises of the power plant after being treated. How to dispose of the water, which still contains tritium, a radioactive material, even after the treatment, has been a difficult issue for the government.

This is a delicate issue that may cause harmful rumors about radiation, Abe suggested.

Asked about the country’s preparedness for a possible powerful earthquake that may occur directly beneath the Tokyo metropolitan area, Abe said that work to make buildings earthquake-resistant has made a substantial progress.

The Abe administration “drew up a basic plan on countermeasures against such a quake, based on lessons from the March 2011 disaster,” Abe said, calling on the current government to advance preparations while keeping in mind goals such as halving from assumed levels the number of deaths from the Tokyo-area earthquake.

During his time in office as prime minister, Abe made efforts to successfully hold the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Abe recalled that he, in a speech on Tokyo’s bid to host the Olympics and Paralympics at an International Olympic Committee meeting in Buenos Aires in 2013, said that he wanted to make the games an opportunity for people across the world to see Japan’s recovery from the March 2011 disaster. “Reconstruction has progressed under that banner,” he said.

“If Japan can hold the reconstruction-themed events also as a testament that humanity has defeated the novel coronavirus, they would go down in the history of the Olympics and Paralympics,” Abe said.

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