His Hometown Inside the Fukushima Exclusion Zone, Hakone Ekiden Great Masato Imai Talks Candidly About the Disasters and the Future
translated by Brett Larner
Now based in Fukuoka, marathoner and Hakone Ekiden great Masato Imai (27, Team Toyota Kyushu), one of the most nationally-respected runners of his generation, was born in Minamisoma, Fukushima, a city severely damaged by the disasters which have befallen northeastern Japan. His parents' house located within the 20 km exclusion zone around the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor, one month on from the earthquake and tsunami Imai and his family are unable to return home. Running in Kyushu in pursuit of his goal of the London Olympics, Imai spoke candidly about the disasters and the situation in his hometown.
"On the evening of Mar. 11 I was watching TV after practice when they said, 'There has been a 10 m tsunami in Minamisoma.' I got goosebumps all over. I tried to call home to see if everyone was safe but couldn't get through. It took me until after sunset to finally hear something. My dad was safe because he was at work and his office is a long way from the ocean, but he said he didn't know where my mom was. That night I was finally able to get a ring on her cell phone, but she didn't answer it.
In the afternoon the next day one of my relatives called and said, 'Hey, your mom's on TV.' I turned on the TV and there she was being helped by a group of rescuers. She had gone to a friend's house to escape from the tsunami together but they had gotten trapped and were being rescued from there. My family were all OK, but some of my teammates from my elementary school baseball team and a girl I used to run with in a running club were swept away by the tsunami. It sounds like some of my neighbors died too.
Our house is 2 km from the ocean. The second floor is still there but the whole first floor was stripped out and washed away by the tsunami. My parents can't go home and are still in an evacuation center in Tochigi, but my brother and his wife, who lived with them and have a young baby, have come down here to Fukuoka. Our town had the ocean, mountains, neighbors who cared about each other like family. My dad also grew rice, and when it was time for the harvest we'd all help him. Now because of the accident at the nuclear reactor there has been radiation released, and it has been really hard to hear my dad on the phone saying, 'I don't think we're going to be able to go back any more.'
I talked to my high school track coach on the phone too. He's always been there for me and supported me, even long after my graduation. I value what he says, and he told me, 'Don't lose sight of your goals. Everybody here still wants to see you run something big.' In spite of everything he's had to go through in Minamisoma, he was the one encouraging me instead of the other way around.
I can't do anything but run. The people I know from back home who escaped are all in different places now, but they can still watch races on TV. This winter there'll be the selection races for the London Olympics. If I succeed I hope all the people from home and all those who are somewhere else now are able to feel something from it.
If you run there are endless times when it's hard, but even when it hurts there are times when you finish and think, 'That was easy.' If you can take hold of that hardship and transcend it I feel like there will be something waiting for you there. I want to take hold of this disaster, rise above it and show everyone back home that there is something there for them too. Someday I want to see them all smiling together again."