Rugby World Cup: Kamaishi set to play emotional role in tournament’s staging

Stadium is built on site of two schools destroyed in the tsunami that followed 2011 earthquake

The Kamaishi Recovery Memorial stadium was built on the site of two schools that were destroyed in the tsunami that followed the 2011 earthquake. More than a  thousand people died in Kamaishi, a town of just 35,000. Photograph:   Charly Triballeau/AFP/Getty Images

The Kamaishi Recovery Memorial stadium was built on the site of two schools that were destroyed in the tsunami that followed the 2011 earthquake. More than a thousand people died in Kamaishi, a town of just 35,000. Photograph: Charly Triballeau/AFP/Getty Images

 

There used to be a telephone box in the middle of the Kamaishi stadium. Nodoka Kikuchi reckons it was somewhere right around the halfway line. She’d know. She was the last person to ever use it. That was at a 2.45pm on March 11th, 2011. She was 15, had just got out of high school, and was calling her parents to come and pick her up.

A minute later, the great earthquake struck. “It started to shake from side-to-side,” she says. “It was terrible, I was holding on to the box, and my friend outside was hugging a gate, because it was the only way we could stand up.” Behind them, the earth of the school football pitch split open and water started to spray out of the ground “like a fountain”.

Like all the children at Kamaishi High, and the next door Unosumai Elementary too, Nodoka knew exactly what to do. They were all supposed to meet at the evacuation point in the schoolyard so the teachers could take a head count. But as she hurried there she heard one teacher shout: “We don’t have time to count! We should just run away!” And that’s what they did, all 570 of them, up into the mountains behind the school.

They stopped at an old people’s home 800 metres uphill. The teachers were talking about what to do next when the aftershocks started. Rocks and boulders were tumbling down on them from the mountain so they ran again, hand in hand now, big kids paired with little kids, 300 metres further on, to the car park of a day care centre. The road was narrow, and they had to squeeze beside the cars coming up from the seafront. “There were about 600 people here, I was in the middle and I could see the people at the back didn’t have room to run in so I was shouting: ‘Making room! Run! Run! Please run!”

When they reached the car park, the teachers started another count. And that’s when Nodoka heard what she thought was a helicopter. Only she couldn’t understand why the whirring sound seemed to be coming up from all around, above and below and behind. Then she looked back.

“Tsunami means wave, but it’s not a wave, I mean, that’s not what I saw. What I saw was like a great wall moving towards us.” Everyone fell silent. “Then someone shouted ‘tsunami!’ and I realised what it was.”

They wanted to run higher, right up into the forests, but the ground was shaking now, and they were worried the mountains were going to fall down, just like the sea had risen up. The teachers led them safely to the highway instead, and they began the long walk inland. Two schoolchildren died. One, a friend of Nodoka’s, had stayed home, sick, and another had been collected by their parents. But everyone who stayed with the teachers survived.

An under-construction boat sits on land next to damaged homes in the city of Kamaishi after a massive 8.9 magnitude quake and tsunami hit the region on March 11th, 2011. Photograph: Yomiuri Shimbun/AFP/Getty Images
An under-construction boat sits on land next to damaged homes in the city of Kamaishi after a massive 8.9 magnitude quake and tsunami hit the region on March 11th, 2011. Photograph: Yomiuri Shimbun/AFP/Getty Images

The tsunami killed more than a thousand people in Kamaishi, a town of just 35,000. Over 160 of the deaths were at the Unosumai District Disaster Control Centre, three minutes walk from Nodoka’s school. Many of the dead there had taken part in a tsunami drill just the previous week, but it had been so cold then that, instead of heading up the mountain where they were supposed to go, they’d stayed indoors at the centre instead. When the tsunami came, that’s what they did again. The flood there was 11 metres deep.

In the years afterwards, they would call what happened at Nodoka’s school “the miracle of Kamaishi”. But she and her friends have never liked that name. “A miracle,” says her colleague Miyuki Kanie, “would have saved everyone.”

And besides, she adds, it wasn’t an act of God that got them through it. The children lived because their teachers made the right decisions. And the townspeople have carved that lesson in stone at the new Tsunami memorial. “Just run! Run uphill! Don’t worry about others. Save yourself first. And tell the future generations that a tsunami once reached this point, and that those who survived were those who ran.”

The “miracle of Kamaishi” has become a famous story, one which has been repeated over and again in the media here. They even made a film about it. It’s one of those tales we tell each other for succour, because it allows us to believe in hope and mercy where there isn’t any.

And in that way it’s similar to how we’ll talk about the new rugby ground they’ve built on the site of those two old schools, the Kamaishi Recovery Memorial Stadium. From our remove, flying in for these few days, the two World Cup matches that will be played here – Fiji face Uruguay on Wednesday – seem a powerful symbol of Kamaishi’s redevelopment. But this isn’t our story to tell.

“For most of the old people, the World Cup coming here is very meaningful,” says Miyuki, who moved here last March. “The local team were very strong a long time ago, when they won the championship seven years in a row, so rugby is especially popular with old people. But to tell the truth, young people are not so interested.”

It’s a fact, she says, that the recovery has moved more quickly here than elsewhere because the World Cup has spurred it on. There are only around 20 local families left in temporary accommodation, and they will be rehoused by the end of the year.

“So I don’t think many people were against the idea of the World Cup,” she says, “because of that, and because they knew how important rugby was to Kamaishi. It has given people new energy. But I know some kids have complicated feelings about it.”

Nodoka is one of them.

“When I heard the stadium was being built I was shocked,” she says, “because it felt like they were destroying my memories. I had such complicated feelings then, thinking about our school, and our lives, it was a big loss.”

Over time, though, as she has watched the construction work, that has changed. “While I watched the stadium going up I started to digest all my feelings, the sadness, the guilt, the nostalgia. And I feel like they’ve settled now. It’s all passed. It’s just part of my history, of who I am. And I feel like if they hadn’t destroyed the school to make this new stadium, I never would have gone through that.” – Guardian

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