When wheelchair basketball Paralympian Akira Toyoshima takes the court at the Tokyo Games, he hopes to encourage residents of his native Tohoku region in northeastern Japan and highlight reconstruction efforts there following the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami that triggered the Fukushima nuclear crisis.
The 32-year-old was working as an accountant in an office at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant when the magnitude-9.0 earthquake struck.
He vividly remembers getting out of his wheelchair and sheltering under his desk as the building shook violently and panels fell from the ceiling.
Unable to move by himself, Toyoshima’s colleague carried him on his back to an evacuation building at the plant. The first hydrogen explosion at the building housing the plant’s No. 1 reactor occurred the following day, as the situation took a turn for the worse.
Toyoshima recalls days of trembling from anxiety, but said, “I can’t remember what time I slept or what time I woke up.”
He went long periods without a proper meal and “felt powerless to do anything” as colleagues around him battled to respond to the crisis.
Three days after the quake, the building housing the No. 3 unit exploded as Toyoshima and other workers donned protective clothing and evacuated the plant by car.
When he arrived at his parents’ home in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, wheelchair basketball, which he had played since eighth grade, was the furthest thing from his mind.
“Is it OK to play basketball while people are suffering and being forced to evacuate?” he wondered.
His feelings were further complicated by his role as an employee of TEPCO, the operator of the disaster-stricken nuclear plant.
“I felt ashamed,” he said.
His outlook soon changed, however, thanks to the success of the Japanese national women’s soccer team, who buoyed the country by winning the FIFA Women’s World Cup in Germany four months after the earthquake.
Fellow TEPCO employee Aya Sameshima, a national team defender, was one of the stars of that history-making squad.
“It helped me move forward,” Toyoshima said. “I realized athletes had a way to repay their debt to their communities.”
With the goal of competing at the London Paralympics, Toyoshima left TEPCO the following year to focus on playing wheelchair basketball for Miyagi MAX, the club to which he still belongs.
Toyoshima will captain the Japanese men’s wheelchair basketball team at the Aug. 24 to Sept. 5 Paralympics — which have been pushed back a year because of the coronavirus pandemic — and carries a strong sense of responsibility along with that role.
Now he is determined to win a medal this year at his third Paralympics, and help lift the spirits of people in Tohoku.
“As an athlete from Tohoku who was affected by disaster, and now as someone living through the day-to-day uncertainty of the coronavirus, I want to deliver a performance I can be proud of,” he said.
“If people feel like they can make it to tomorrow, they can start to look five or 10 years down the track”
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