KAMAISHI, IWATE PREF. – Kamaishi Recovery Memorial Stadium in disaster-hit Iwate Prefecture held its first international rugby match Saturday, delighting an emotional crowd made up of residents of the area and fans from all over.
The stadium is unlike any other, having been built on the grounds of two schools destroyed by the massive earthquake and tsunami that hit on March 11, 2011, decimating much of the northeastern coastline.
By the end of October, the ground will have hosted two Rugby World Cup matches and Saturday’s game between Japan and Fiji served as a test run for organizers.
“It is an honor to be invited here and play the first test here, knowing what happened,” said Fiji coach John McKee, whose side will return to Kamaishi on Sept. 25 to play Uruguay during the World Cup.
For rugby fans, it was an emotional day, particularly for those with ties to the area.
Kazuo Tanaka, who traveled from Tokyo to attend the game, runs a nongovernmental organization aimed at supporting people here and in other areas affected by the disaster.
An avid rugby fan, Tanaka said he had visited Kamaishi several times since the tsunami struck and remembers standing on the site formerly occupied by the schools.
“There was nothing here,” he said. “Coming here to watch this game has made me so emotional.”
Fijian Valerie Marra, 50, was in Kamaishi to support her “fabulous Fijian team.”
“It’s amazing to see such a sad event turned into something that is both remembrance and a happy occasion. It’s great seeing how people have come together for this,” she said.
Fans used the newly restored railway and shuttle buses to reach the ground at Unosumai, where there are constant reminders of the tragedy.
Just under a kilometer away, above what on Saturday looked like an idyllic place to swim, is a memorial to those that died, with a message imploring people to “Just run. Run uphill … and tell future generations that a tsunami reached this point.”
Before the game, there were several announcements informing people what to do if an earthquake strikes and signs dot the area directing the way to evacuation points in the wooded hills overlooking the ground.
Despite the tragic past, there were only smiles on the faces of fans prior to kickoff, as to many of them the sport was finally coming home.
Formerly home to the Nippon Steel side that won seven straight national championships from 1979 to 1985, Kamaishi is a rugby town. Locals stop visitors on the street to ask if they are there for the rugby, and having the stadium host this string of games was as much a reward for their resilience as it was their love for the oval ball and those who play the game.
Hours before kickoff, the ground was full of red and white — the Brave Blossoms’ new World Cup shirt was a favorite for many.
Not that they had a total monopoly, with some Japanese fans who professed to “loving the Fiji style of rugby” wearing the famous white jersey of the Pacific islanders, who will be based in Akita prior to the World Cup.
Despite early reports of long lines at security checkpoints and for beer, visitors got a warm welcome. A group of local fans had even spent the week practicing the Fijian national anthem.
The game sets the stage for what RWC organizers are saying will be a “once in a lifetime event.”
Passionate rugby fans in Kamaishi, however, will be hoping that this type of excitement is felt more often.