World Cup brings hope to Japan's tsunami-hit 'rugby town'

Charly TRIBALLEAU with Richard Carter in Tokyo
AFP

When Fiji and Uruguay clash next month for a Rugby World Cup match in the small northern Japanese town of Kamaishi, the emotions will resonate far and wide.

Kamaishi, sometimes referred to as the "Wales of Japan" for its links to mining and rugby, was one of the areas hardest-hit by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, losing more than 1,000 people as homes, vehicles and buildings were washed away.

Residents had to rebuild their town almost from scratch, and from the rubble has sprung a new, 16,000-seat stadium that will host two Rugby World Cup matches, the competition's only purpose-built venue.

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While the stadium's construction has sparked some controversy in a town where, more than eight years after the disaster, some people are still in temporary accommodation, many see it as a powerful symbol of recovery and hope.

The town's mayor Takenori Noda wants the World Cup to be an opportunity to turn the page and make Kamaishi famous for something other than the tsunami.

"It's very important to create a new history and a legacy that will be a treasure for us. We want to bring hope," Noda told AFP.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, the town of 34,000 people turned to the oval ball for comfort and its rugby team, the Kamaishi Seawaves, played a match only two weeks after the tsunami to revive spirits.

Along with the Kamaishi players, foreign stars -- including All Black centre Pita Alatini and Wallabies flanker Scott Fardy -- stayed in the town and helped with the reconstruction efforts.

- 'Just run. Run uphill' -

Kamaishi boasts a proud rugby history, with Nippon Steel Kamaishi RFC carrying all before them in the early 1980s, winning seven consecutive national titles and earning the nickname "the Northern Iron Men".

But the Seawaves, the club formed when Nippon Steel disbanded, have tasted limited success in this year's Top League, winning just one match and twice leaking 50 points or more.

Noda hopes the World Cup will showcase rugby to a new generation.

"This is a very famous rugby town but it was decades ago. The young Kamaishi children don't know actually why the town is famous for rugby," he admitted.

"To have the World Cup here in Kamaishi will be a big opportunity and a big experience for them."

Memories of the tsunami are never far from sight, even at the brand-new Kamaishi Unosumai Memorial Stadium.

Sea defences are just a few hundred metres from the goalposts and two new evacuation routes snake into the hills just beyond one try line.

Reminders of the carnage suffered by this town are everywhere, from road signs declaring where the waters reached to a poignant memorial with an inscription: "Just run. Run uphill ... And tell future generations that a tsunami reached this point."

The stadium, with a normal capacity of 6,000 which swells to 16,000 with temporary stands added for the World Cup matches, was built on the site of two schools deluged by the tsunami.

More than 400 children ranging from six to 15 escaped the water, racing some two kilometres into the mountains -- an event that became known as the "miracle of Kamaishi".

- 'We have great alcohol' -

Staging World Cup games in a disaster-hit area like Kamaishi is part of a wider push to drive tourism to the battered region, which will also see baseball matches hosted in Fukushima during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

After the Uruguay-Fiji match on September 25, the stadium will also host Namibia-Canada on October 13.

Twelve-year-old rugby player and fan Takuma Kawasaki, who still has strong memories of the tsunami, said he can't wait for the tournament to kick off.

"I've very much looking forward to watching wonderful players from around the world. We experienced a lot of difficulties after the earthquake but now I'm so happy that we can host the Rugby World Cup," he told AFP.

Former Seawaves scrum-half Takeshi Nagata said hosting two World Cup games would enable the town to repay the support it received from abroad and show it has risen from the wreckage.

"At the time of the disaster, we had such a huge amount of support from outside and from overseas. So we are really keen to show everyone that we are doing well and we have recovered," said Nagata.

And amid fears that host cities could underestimate the amount of beer required for foreign rugby fans, Nagata knows what might attract them.

"We have great alcohol here," he says with a grin.

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