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In 2011, a devastating earthquake and tsunami struck eastern Japan. In the city of Kamaishi, buildings were swept away and over a thousand people perished, and in its rebuilding, the city chose to prioritize a rugby stadium. Former rugby player Ash Bhardwaj went to find out why.
“We don’t say ‘we survived’,” says Iwasaki Akiko, “We say ‘life is given to us.’”
I’m standing next to Houraikan, Iwasaki’s ryokan or traditional Japanese inn. In front of it, a line of trees sit atop a sea wall, which drops five meters to a narrow beach and into the still water of a Pacific bay.
But I’m looking at a red line on the inn’s third storey. It shows the high water line of the 10-meter tsunami that crashed over the wall and submerged the inn on March 11, 2011. Behind it, a path climbs steeply up the wooded mountain, passing a Shinto shrine to a Japanese god of water.
“That was the path we escaped up,” Iwasaki says, smiling all the time, “The building survived the tsunami and, when the water receded, we became a shelter for people who had lost their houses. In times like this, every person has a position, a role to play—just like in rugby.”
Houraikan is one bay along from the new rugby stadium, Kamaishi Recovery Memorial Stadium. The sport has a long history here: Back in the 1970s, when professional rugby first came to Japan, Kamaishi’s local team won seven national championships in a row. Sponsored by Nippon Steel, and considered unbeatable, they became known as the ‘Iron Men’.
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“Rugby is Kamaishi’s spirit and history,” says Yuta Nakano, the current captain of Kamaishi Seawaves Rugby Football Club.“Because of that success in the 1970s, everyone in Japan over the age of 50 knows of this city. There are Kamaishi fans all over Japan, and I’m grateful to play for a city with such a proud rugby heritage.
“After the earthquake, people wanted us to play, to cheer them up and distract them,” he continues. “The damage meant we had to go to Morioka or Kitakami to play our home games, but now we are playing in Kamaishi again.”
Then in 2014, Japan won the bid to host the 2019 Rugby World Cup, with 12 cities across the country hosting 48 games. Of these, 10 are large cities in the south, plus Sapporo, on the northern island of Hokkaido, which has a population of 2 million. The other is Kamaishi, with a population of just 35,000, in the Iwate prefecture of northeast Japan.
“I’m going there for the games, along with tens of thousands of other people. And millions will see Kamaishi on television and know its story. If they hadn’t had built the stadium, none of that would be happening.”
Shane Williams, rugby player
The city was awarded two games and a new 6,000-seater stadium was immediately announced, with 10,000 additional temporary seats for the World Cup. But it was not without controversy.
“At first, some local people weren’t sure,” says Nakano. “Why were we spending time and money building a stadium when so much else was needed? But now they see that it has brought attention to the city. They are excited about the World Cup, and it gives them a chance to promote Kamaishi.”
Shane Williams is one of Wales’s greatest-ever rugby players, with 300 international points to his name. He played club rugby in Japan in 2012, and is going back as a TV pundit for the Rugby World Cup, covering the games in Kamaishi.
“The Japanese love a festival,” he tells me when I meet him in London. “And it doesn’t get bigger than the World Cup; visitors will be overwhelmed by the enthusiasm. I remember playing against Kamaishi, when they were still playing in Morioka. They were so proud of their city, and the values of rugby—sacrifice, commitment, community and patience—are the characteristics of the people of Kamaishi.”
I ask him if he thought the stadium was worth it.
“Well, I’m going there for the games, along with tens of thousands of other people. And millions will see Kamaishi on television and know its story. If they hadn’t had built the stadium, none of that would be happening.”
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