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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Running as one in Fukushima

Tomomi Hashimoto

Dec. 5, 2017

The Japanese prefecture of Fukushima has a long-distance relay that takes place every year. Such races are called "ekiden" in Japan, and they're big events across the country. Instead of a baton, runners wear a sash. They hand it over to their teammate at the end of each stage.

One particular team is from a town that paid a heavy price after the nuclear crisis of March 2011. For a community that can no longer live together, running a relay has become more than just a race.

Fukushima is hosting the 29th edition of its annual "ekiden" long-distance relay.

The prefecture's 59 municipalities are represented by teams of 16 runners, 12 male and 4 female. The youngest ones are in their early teens.

Teams compete over 16 stages and a total distance of 95 kilometers. Among them is the team of Futaba.

Naohiro Shirato is their leader. He's maintained his role despite spending the last 6-and-a-half years of his life as an evacuee.

Shirato's job is also related to evacuees. He maintains temporary housing in the town of Koriyama and advises the residents who often live on their own, away from their hometowns. Many here are looking forward to the relay.

"I’ll do my best at the relay, so you hang in there too," he tells one.

On March 11, 2011, an earthquake with a magnitude of 9.0 hit northeastern Japan, triggering a giant tsunami. The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant took a direct hit. Three reactors suffered a meltdown, followed by explosions that released massive amounts of radiation.

The disaster took a heavy toll on the town of Futaba. It's more than 7-thousand residents had evacuate immediately, in most cases, with only their clothes on their backs.

Six and a half years after the triple meltdown, Futaba remains uninhabitable. And its residents have been scattered all over Japan.

Right after the disaster, many evacuees felt their town would be unable to compete at the annual Fukushima Ekiden. But some of the younger ones insisted they wanted to run, and so Shirato decided to form a team.

"If we had given up in 2011, everything would have come to an end," he says. "The fact that we could still run despite the circumstances, that was the most significant."

6 years later, the life of evacuees is making things hard for Shirato. Younger generations are gradually losing their connection with their hometown. He pores over a list of Futaba residents and calls each family, in search of new recruits for the relay.

"If I call 30 people and get 2 or 3 positive replies, that's a pretty good number," he says. "Everyone ran away in different directions after the disaster, and it's up to me to form a team. The whole notion of putting a team together carries a lot more meaning than before the disaster.”

After months of effort, Shirato has managed to put together a full team. With just one month to go, Shirato organizes an intensive training camp. It's an important moment, because team members can no longer spend time together as they did when they still lived in Futaba.

Shirato has particularly high hopes for one member--23-year-old team captain, Shun Idogawa.

Idogawa lives alone in the city of Iwaki, 40 kilometers south of Futaba. This year, he started working for the municipal office of Futaba, which was also relocated to Iwaki.

When the disaster struck in March 2011, Idogawa was a 16-year-old high school freshman. After the evacuation, he had to transfer to another school. He was still struggling to adjust when he got a call in June from coach Shirato. The relay later that year marked a turning point in Idogawa's life.

"When I received the relay sash, I had a strong feeling that I was inheriting the pride of my hometown," he says. "The runner that preceded me ran so frantically, it was really gratifying. The more I ran, the more excited I felt."

Now Idogawa practices alone every day. To him, running is also a way of remembering one of the friends he lost to the tsunami.

"There's a similar river in Futaba, that's why I run along this one," he says. "And as I run, I admire the landscape, which also looks the same. When spring comes, the cherry trees bloom and the scenery becomes quite beautiful."

Half an hour into the relay, a runner wearing team Futaba's number 40 hands over the sash to the next runner.

The relay brings together not just the community, but also different generations. Step by step, stage after stage, team Futaba plows forward.

"I’m happy I was able to run with team Futaba," says one member. "The earthquake scattered us all over, but the sash is what keeps us all connected."

"I can't do much for the reconstruction, but I'd like to take this opportunity to show everyone that I am working hard," says another.

Finally, it’s Idogawa’s turn. He's got the difficult task of closing the race. He knows the whole community of Futaba is waiting for him at the finish line.

"While I run, I keep thinking about my lost friends, and also about all the things that happened since the disaster right up until now," he says. "The thing I'm most happy about is being able to run again this year. And also receiving the sash, it feels like our whole community was able to come together once again."

"I don’t know for how long we'll have to live as evacuees, but I'm determined to never give up," says Shirato.

Team Futaba finished in 45th place. That's 3 better than last year.

Idogawa has come to the very edge of his hometown. The traces of the tsunami are still visible. Before the disaster, Idogawa used to feel Futaba wasn't a stimulating place to live. But now, he feels he wants to remain part of the community.

"Running in the relay, it makes me feel like I'm back in my hometown of Futaba," he says. "The relay takes place once a year. I get to meet people I know and to talk with them about Futaba. It feels like we're back where we used to be. And this, I intend to continue. I will keep on going until the day I can't run anymore."