Rugby World Cup stadium opens as symbol of hope in tsunami-hit Kamaishi
Over 6,000 watched the first match at the new stadium in the Japanese coastal town
Rugby fans attend the inaugural game at the Kamaishi Restoration Stadium in Kamaishi, Iwate, Japan. The stadium will host two games during the Rugby World Cup next year. Photograph: Koki Nagahama/Getty Images
On the afternoon of March 11th 2011, Akiko Iwasaki was preparing for another busy evening at her traditional inn when a magnitude-9 earthquake triggered a deadly tsunami along Japan’s northeast coast.
Within 30 minutes, the waters of the Pacific Ocean that drew visitors to her ryokan in the coastal town of Kamaishi had unleashed waves that killed more than 18,000 people in the country’s worst natural disaster for decades.
Dramatic footage taken by a member of her staff shows Iwasaki and her neighbours desperately trying to evade the encroaching tsunami. She was swept away and ended up wedged between the building’s back wall and a minibus. But she had survived.
The tsunami killed 1,145 of Kamaishi’s 35,000 people, flooded or destroyed thousands of homes and businesses, and wrecked its fishing fleet.
On Sunday, Iwasaki was among the crowd of just over 6,000 who attending the inaugural match at Kamaishi’s new Rugby World Cup stadium, the most visible evidence to date of the town’s recovery.
The purpose-built Unosumai memorial stadium will host two matches at next year’s tournament, the first to be held in Asia. Fiji and Uruguay will meet in Pool D in September, followed by a Pool B match in October between Namibia, who secured their place at the weekend, and the winner of November’s four-team repechage that takes place in France. The ¥3.9bn (€30m) stadium currently holds just 6,000 people, but another 10,000 temporary seats will be added for the World Cup.
Located on low-lying land that took a direct hit from the tsunami, it stands as a symbol of the town’s recovery, the resilience of its people, and their long and illustrious relationship with rugby.
As the birthplace of Japan’s steel industry, Kamaishi was home to the Nippon Steel rugby club, who won seven consecutive national championships from 1979-85, earning its players the nickname the “iron men of the north”.
Kamaishi is no stranger to destruction and renewal. A huge tsunami in 1896 killed half of its residents and another, in 1933, left hundreds dead. During the war, US naval bombardments targeting its foundries reduced the town centre to rubble.
The decision by Nippon Steel to close its last steel mill in the late 1980s triggered a period of steep economic decline. The rugby team disbanded, but was reborn as the Kamaishi Seawaves, whose players battled to a 24-29 defeat in a pre-season friendly against Top League side Yamaha Jubilo on Sunday.
“Today has been an incredible day for Kamaishi,” said the mayor, Takenori Noda. “To have played the opening match in this beautiful stadium, completed with the support and vision of so many people, is a dream come true. I feel like the rugby gods are looking down on us today.”
The chairman of World Rugby, Bill Beaumont, said the opening of the stadium marked a “very special moment” just over a year before the start of the tournament. In a statement, he added: “The stadium stands as a testament to the indomitable spirit of the people of Kamaishi and will act as a beacon of hope and inspiration for generations to come.”
The level of interest in Sunday’s match augurs well for the World Cup. Tickets were snapped up as soon as they went on sale, and spectators arrived hours before kick-off to watch touch and wheelchair rugby, drink beer and sake, and eat barbecued oysters and scallops.
Entertainment was provided by the J-Pop band Exile, accompanied by hundreds of local children whose tsunami-damaged primary and middle schools once stood on the site now occupied by the stadium.
All of Kamaishi’s children who were at school on the day of the disaster survived because they had followed simple advice – head uphill and don’t turn back for family and friends – passed down through generations in a town where residents can expect to experience three huge tsunamis in their lifetime.
“People in Kamaishi were able to regain their sense of hope through rugby,” said Kenji Sasaki, the principal of Kamaishi Higashi middle school, which reopened on a permanent site last year. Rugby fan Sasaki conceded he has mixed feelings when he sees the new stadium, located on the school’s former site. But he added: “To have World Cup matches played here is a dream come true, so I understand why the stadium had to be built, and so do the pupils.”
Despite the general atmosphere of optimism, some spectators questioned the wisdom of building a rugby stadium when many displaced families have yet to secure permanent homes. As of June, 1,100 Kamaishi residents were still living in temporary housing, a situation the local government has vowed to rectify before the World Cup.
“The city hasn’t completely recovered and there are still people who haven’t been rehoused, so I’m in two minds about the stadium,” said Mieko Niinuma, a local nurse. “But you can see today that it at least it has helped bring people together.”
Takeshi Nagata, a former Seawaves scrum-half and coach who is now an official with the Kamaishi Rugby World Cup headquarters, said he believed the vast majority of the town’s people were behind the stadium.
“Some people initially disagreed with its construction as there is still a lot of rebuilding to be done,” Nagata said. “But others thought that having World Cup games here would give people hope. This sort of thing only happens once in a lifetime. It will be our chance to show the world how much progress we’ve made.”
And there has been progress. The stadium aside, Kamaishi has a new civic hall – where the Webb Ellis Cup was on display over the weekend – shops and restaurants, and residential areas built on higher ground. Locals are pinning their hopes on a surge in , driven by its rugby legacy, breathtaking coastline and seafood, to secure the town’s long-term economic future.
But there are reminders, too, of the disaster: grass-covered rectangles where homes once stood, and, in places, towering concrete sea walls that block views of the ocean.
Iwasaki, who was surrounded by well-wishers as she walked through the stadium gates, believes the World Cup will serve as a reminder of the town’s tragic history and as a beacon of hope for its children.
“We can’t pretend that the disaster never happened,” said the 62-year-old, who reopened her inn less than a year after the disaster. “But I’m sure that rugby fans who travel all the way to Kamaishi will go home feeling glad they came. It’s not a big town, but it’s a warm and welcoming one.”