TOKYO, Aug 19 (Reuters) - Just like many of the towns and villages along Japan’s east coast left devastated by the earthquake and tsunami that struck on March 3, 2011, Kamaishi still bears the physical and mental scars of that fateful day.
The town, which had a population of 35,000 before the disaster, was almost destroyed, with most of the buildings ruined and 98 percent of the area’s fishing industry wiped out.
However, the wound that will never fully heal is the 1,145 people left either dead or unaccounted for in the wake of the tsunami.
Kamaishi has struggled back to its feet in the seven years since with the chance to host two matches during next year’s Rugby World Cup providing additional motivation to a population who have proven their strength and resilience in the face of crippling adversity.
The new Kamaishi Unosumai Memorial Stadium, which opened its doors for the first time on Sunday, has been built on land once occupied by the local school.
Now protected by a deep sea wall, the area was then exposed to the full force of the tsunami that hit 30 minutes after the 9.0-9.1 magnitude earthquake, the most powerful in Japan’s history, struck off the coast.
According to the school’s head teacher Kenji Sesaki, it was the children who reacted fastest when the designated evacuation point wasn’t high enough to avoid the on-rushing water.
“They could see that the cliff behind them was beginning to collapse so they decided it was too dangerous to stay there and so went further up the hill,” Sesaki explained while pointing to before and after photographs on the wall of the new Kamaishi Higashi Junior High School.
Every single one of the 416 students who went to school that day survived the disaster. Sesaki said that two students who were absent perished.
In an area prone to natural disasters, the schoolchildren had plenty of experience of evacuation and Sesaki said people in Kamaishi expected to suffer three tsunami in their lifetime.
Physical education teacher Tomoko Obokata, who escaped with the children on March 3, broke down when describing the trauma suffered by her students.
“Following the disaster, it was difficult for a lot of the children to talk about their experience,” said Obokata.
“Lots of the children lost their parents or family members so as teachers we were very conscious we did not want to touch upon any sensitive aspects and to try and force them to go through difficult memories.”
Instead, the school chooses to focus on the future.
“After going through so much tragedy we just want to go forward,” Sesaki said.
“We are incredibly grateful for all the strength we have received and the kids in particular want to use this World Cup to move forward with everyone’s support.”
“For children, (sport) gives them a chance to forget about the more difficult things they are going through, to relax and to focus on specific goals,” he added.
“Sport does have a big impact.”
Local businesses are also looking to the rugby showpiece as a chance to not only repay the support shown from around the world but also for new visitors to embrace everything Kamaishi has to offer.
Iwasaki Akiko was caught by the waves that crashed into her ryokan, or Japanese inn, along with three of her colleagues.
All four of them survived but with the first floor of the inn entirely drenched in water, rebuilding her hotel has required great persistence and determination, as well as a momentous community effort.
The ryokan is now up and running and hosted New Zealand rugby greats Richie McCaw and Dan Carter when they visited the area.
Akiko says the new stadium has been a lift for the whole area.
“It is a real sense of hope for us to have a place, where these two schools once stood, to have a place where everyone can band together,” she told reporters in her picturesque hotel.
“We cannot maintain this kind of inn unless people come to here to stay so we really want people from all over the world to come here.”
Local officials hope rugby fans looking to escape the cities of Tokyo or Osaka will head to Kamaishi for a chance to experience something different and help further rejuvenate the area.
Like many previous residents of Kaimaishi, former rugby player and coach of the local Seawaves team, Takeshi Nagata was determined to stay in the town to help it find it’s feet.
“I think the people of Kamaishi are very resilient and forward-thinking. But, more than that, I think it is a city that really bands together and looks after its own,” said Nagata, now part of the local organising team overseeing Kaimashi’s role at Japan 2019.
“One of the real meanings of the stadium and the Rugby World Cup as a whole, for Kamaishi, is to show the people that helped them, how well they have done with their support.”
The inaugural match on Sunday between the Seawaves and Yamaha Jubilo went off without a hitch, which hardly comes as a surprise to those who have seen the strength of Kamaishi’s people.
Locals will be hoping more visitors have the chance to experience this for themselves when the Rugby World Cup arrives 13 months from now. (Reporting by Jack Tarrant Editing by Christian Radnedge Editing by Christian Radnedge)