An Inundated Japanese City Looks to Rugby for Renewal

Can rugby help revive a tsunami-devastated town? Residents of Kamaishi in northern Japan are partially pinning their hopes for economic revival following the earthquake and tsunami seven years ago on rugby, specifically the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

Japan is scheduled to host the 2019 Rugby World Cup, with the first games beginning almost exactly a year from now, on Sept. 30, 2019, in a match pitting Russia and Japan. It is to be played at 12 locations throughout Japan. With a population of just 35,000, Kamaishi may be the smallest city to sponsor such an important international sporting event.

Rugby Union, which administers the game globally, hopes that allowing Japan to host the 2019 world cup would will elevate interest in the sport in Asia as well as help some of the tsunami-devastated communities along Japan’s northern coast.

The magnitude 9 Great East Japan Earthquake struck just off the northern coast about 2.45 p.m. March 11, 2011. About 30 minutes later a wall of water inundated the northern coast, easily puncturing and overcoming seawalls.

Using national grants, Kamaishi built a new stadium where two washed-out schools had been located. It is built to seat 6,000 spectators, but this will be expanded with temporary seating to about 16,000 for the game. Already booked is a match pitting Fiji against Uruguay.

Takeshi Nagata, a retired player who works for the city on rugby matters, said there was some opposition to building the stadium rather than putting the ¥3.9 billion construction money into replacing washed-out houses.

“But it also came at a time when everyone was downcast, and there wasn’t a lot of hope in the town, so the biggest aim for the World Rugby Cup is to create some hope,” Nagata said.

It wasn’t just sympathy for the tsunami survivors that went into the Rugby Union decision to hold one of the rugby matches in this city, which was ruined by 30-meter waves that crashed over seawalls, destroyed homes and killed some 1,200 local people.

Kamaishi had always been a rugby town and a sporting powerhouse long before the deluge. Fondly remembered is the Northern Iron Men Rugby Team supported by the local steel mill. It won the nationwide Japan Cup for seven consecutive years in the 1970 and 1980s.

Japan is not much of a rugby powerhouse on the world scene, having won only one out of 24 matches since the World Cup was first played.

However, all Japan rejoiced in 2016 when its “Brave Blossoms” team scored a surprise victory over South Africa, a match The Guardian newspaper described as the “biggest shock in rugby history.”

The Kamaishi 15 played the French National team in 1984, up against such global stars as Serge Blanco, the French fullback (he later sent blankets to help the people after the tsunami.)

For years the Nippon Steel Corp. supported the team. Founded in 1856 as Japan’s first steel mill, it operated until 1988, when Nippon Steel closed the plant as being no longer commercially viable. Nippon Steel stopped underwriting the rugby team when it went out of business, but local enthusiasts found the local funding to form another team with the ironic name of Kamaishi Seawaves.

Rugby enthusiasts are trying to rekindle local enthusiasm for the sport, while the mayor, Takenori Noda, sees rugby, including building a new 16,000 person stadium, as part of his plans to revive the town,

But Rugby News Japan lamented he might have a difficult task: “The people of Kamaishi don’t have the same interest in rugby as in the past. The priorities have shifted to rebuilding homes, finding work, feeding families and moving out of temporary shelters.”

In addition to rugby, Kamaishi was famous for its seawall, which was built at considerable expense before the tsunami and ultimately failed utterly to hold back the surging tide. The seawall, and specially the town’s plans to rebuild it with reconstruction money from the national government, is controversial.

Why spend so much money on a wall that demonstrably failed the ultimate test, some argue. They say it gave residents a false sense of security. Mayor Noda, however, defends the project, which was completed in March. It is part of some 245 miles of sea walls have been built along the northern coast at a cost of about US$12 billion. It has been criticized even by Akei Abe, the wife of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe

Noda defends the expenditures. “The damage [from the tsunami] was much smaller than it would have been without the wall,” he says today. “It delayed the full impact by about six minutes,” In such a situation, he said, every minute counts.

Kamaishi is a hilly city with little flat land. Rising directly behind the central business district are three steep hills and a network of wooden ladders, stairways and pathways that have long provided a natural evacuation shelter against tsunami, sort of like tornado shelters in Oklahoma.

These stairs and pathways were critical in saving many lives. The town is extremely proud that not one of the approximately 3,000 elementary through high school children in school was killed in the surge, even though their schools, located along the shore were inundated. It is often called the “Kamaishi Miracle.”

As for critics of his sea wall reconstruction plan, the Mayor says: “Maybe only people who live along the coast would understand.”

Todd Crowell is based in Japan and is a longtime contributor to Asia Sentinel.