Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture – Passion for rugby is offering a beacon of hope in the northeastern city of Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, after it was ravaged by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
"We were able to aim for the same goal, the World Cup," said Yoshihiko Sakuraba, general manager of the Kamaishi Seawaves Rugby Football Club, of his relationship with the city in the decade after the disaster. "That became a great asset."
Kamaishi hosted one match during the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan, living up to its name as a "rugby town." The Seawaves are the successors of a former Kamaishi-based corporate team that won the national championship seven consecutive times.
The 54-year-old Sakuraba said that he remembers vividly the sight of the city in the immediate aftermath of the quake and tsunami. He said that he began to have doubts about continuing the sport while volunteering to clean up the rubble with players from the team.
"In the face of the calamity, I became unsure about whether we could recover," he said. "I felt that now was not the time for rugby."
Even after Kamaishi was floated as a potential World Cup host city, Sakuraba said he was skeptical about whether hosting the tournament was the right thing to do.
But he began to believe that hosting the World Cup would accelerate reconstruction, after many citizens urged him to reinvigorate the city with rugby. He started working as a World Cup ambassador to promote the event.
The tournament was a success. Kamaishi Unosumai Memorial Stadium, one of the World Cup venues built in a district that suffered especially severe damage from the tsunami, become a symbol of reconstruction.
"I saw many smiling faces at the venue and in the city," Sakuraba said. "It was an extremely happy moment."
Since the World Cup, the number of children joining the Seawaves youth team has continued to increase. Even amid the coronavirus pandemic, Sakuraba said that citizens are still enthusiastic about rugby.
The Seawaves are preparing for the launch of a new league in January next year.
"We have a big role to play as a team representing the region," Sakuraba said. "We want to become strong so that we can contribute to the success of the league, and in 10 years, we hope to be a championship contender."
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