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Japan Olympic win boosts Abe, but Fukushima shadows linger

An aerial view shows people sitting in formation to the words "thank you" and displaying signs that collectively read "Arigato" (Thank You)
An aerial view shows people sitting in formation to the words "thank you" and displaying signs that collectively read "Arigato" (Thank You)

By Elaine Lies

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan savored its victory on Monday in the race to host the 2020 Olympic Games, anticipating an economic boost to spur its revival from two decades of stagnation and help it recover from the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

But while Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's bold gamble to throw himself into the Tokyo bid paid off handsomely, his claims to have the problems of the crippled Fukushima nuclear reactor under control ran into fresh resistance.

The Japanese capital's decisive win over rivals Madrid and Istanbul boosts Abe's fortunes after he put his reputation on the line for the bid, and a brisk gain for Tokyo shares suggests a boon as well for national confidence, a key ingredient in the success so far of Abe's aggressive pro-growth policies.

The Tokyo bid committee estimates the world's third-biggest economy will get a boost of more than 3 trillion yen ($30 billion) with the creation of 150,000 jobs. The Nikkei stock index gained 2.5 percent on Monday, while some analysts predict a short-term boost of 10 percent. The examples of the London and Athens suggest a one- to three-month rally after winning the right to host the games.

But Tokyo, which held Asia's first Olympics in 1964, is now preparing for the world's biggest sporting extravaganza as the worst atomic crisis since Chernobyl continues to unfold just 230 km (140 miles) from the Japanese capital.

The plant's operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co, has recently been forced to reverse denials and admit that hundreds of tons of radioactive water are pouring into the Pacific Ocean each day. Radiation levels near tanks that leaked highly radioactive water have spiked, and the operator of the plant has voiced concerns that contamination may reach groundwater.

Abe said in Buenos Aires, where Tokyo's victory was announced by the International Olympic Committee, that the plant is "under control".

"I would like to state clearly that there has not been, is not now and will not be any health problems whatsoever," Abe told a news conference. "Furthermore, the government has already decided a program to make sure there is absolutely no problem, and we have already started."

Tokyo pledged last week to spend nearly half a billion dollars on cleaning up the plant, with critics saying the announcement was aimed at the Olympic vote.

But a poll by the Asahi newspaper over the weekend found that 72 percent of the respondents thought the government's response was too late, while 95 percent thought Fukushima was a serious problem.

"I don't think anyone can say that it is true that it is under control," said Kazuyoshi Sato, an assembly man from Iwaki City just outside the 30 km (18.5 mile) exclusion zone around the Fukushima Daiichi plant.

Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University, said it is "disingenuous" for Abe to tell the rest of the world that Fukushima is safely removed from Tokyo, "while campaigning domestically that we are one nation."

More people in Fukushima are now likely to have died as a result of health problems and stress related to nuclear evacuation than died in the 2011 quake and tsunami itself, a Mainichi newspaper survey showed on Sunday.

South Korea on Friday extended a ban on Japanese fishery imports to a larger area around the crippled Fukushima plant due to concerns over the radiation.

Some of the estimated 2,000 people gathered at a Tokyo park to wait for the Olympics announcement, which came in around dawn on Sunday, said the games might bring enough international attention that the nuclear problem will be properly dealt with.

"Tepco has not been clear about a number of things, and maybe now there will be enough foreign pressure to get this thoroughly taken care of," said Yumiko Okada, 51, who assists her husband, a comic illustrator, with his business.

"Now the eyes of the world will be watching."

CONFIDENCE, STOCKS GET A LIFT

Many in the Tokyo park were hopeful that Japan's win would boost confidence overall, show that the country is back on the world stage after the economic dark times known as the "two lost decades," during which China overtook it to become the world's largest economy after the United States.

"It is a very good chance for Japan to have a rebirth for further economic development - and at the same time, Japan these days has lost the samurai spirit," said Kazuo Otsuki, 78. "Japanese people are wondering what to do and they are still astray these days."

Since coming to power in December, Abe has promoted aggressive monetary and fiscal policies that have raised some confidence Japan can emerge from its years of stagnation.

Japanese shares rallied and the yen dropped on Monday after Tokyo won the Olympic bid.

The longer-term boost for the market "depends on how much the government can push for infrastructure investments and promotion of tourism business," said Ryota Sakagami, chief equity strategist at SMBC Nikko Securities.

A Tokyo Olympics stock index of 79 companies that could benefit from the Games, compiled by Okasan Securities, was already up about a half this year, gaining more than the broader market's increase of about a third.

Realtors, anticipating development of Tokyo's downtown waterfront area - where the Olympic Village will be located - are especially hopeful.

An economic lift might also give Abe the final impetus he needs to make a decision on a planned increase in the national sales tax, Japan's biggest attempt in years to rein in its runaway public debt. Abe will decide around October 1 whether the economy is strong enough to weather the hike.

($1=98.92 yen)

(Additional reporting by Linda Sieg and Hideyuki Sano; Writing by Elaine Lies and William Mallard; Editing by Neil Fullick)

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