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Rugby World Cup

Japanese city torn by 2011 disaster now rocks Rugby World Cup

Hosting games a 'dream come true' for Kamaishi after horrors of past tsunami

Fiji and Uruguay battle it out at the Kamaishi Recovery Memorial Stadium on September 25.   © Kyodo

KAMAISHI, Japan -- Emotions ran high on Wednesday in the small city of Kamaishi in northeastern Japan, a town devastated by the massive earthquake and tsunami that struck in March 2011. Eight years later, about 14,000 fans jammed a new stadium to watch Fiji battle Uruguay at the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

The match was the fruition of years of planning by the city, which just months after the disaster kicked off a campaign to host some of the tournament's matches.

Like much of the region, the 2011 disaster hit Kamaishi hard, leaving more than 1,000 people dead or missing, and more than 3,600 homes damaged or destroyed. The population now stands at just over 33,000. Recovery has been a long journey, but Wednesday's match gave the city something to cheer about.

The Houraikan hotel, a traditional inn nestled against the Pacific Ocean, is just a 15-minute walk from Kamaishi Unosumai Memorial Stadium, the only newly built facility among the Rugby World Cup's 12 venues.

Hotel manager Akiko Iwasaki woke up at 4 a.m. on the day of the match. Three hotel employees perished when the tsunami crashed through facility, destroying the hotel annex in the process. Houraikan reopened in January 2012, and has since supported the drive to host the event, serving as a meeting place for tournament officials and locals.

"It feels like a dream come true," Iwasaki said. "It's been a long hard road, but I've learned to never give up."

Fans at the stadium wave traditional fishermen's banners that signal a good catch. (Photo by Taro Yokozawa)

Early on Wednesday morning, an army of volunteers swarmed Kamaishi Station, preparing maps to guide visitors to the venue. Arriving fans were greeted by residents waving traditional fishermen's banners, creating a lively, festive atmosphere.

In the early afternoon, local high schoolers gathered around a monument at the stadium dedicated to the memory of the 2011 disaster, recounting to passersby the horrors of that fateful day.

"Of course we want people to enjoy the match, but we'd also be grateful if they want to learn about the disaster," one said.

The stadium was built on ground where once stood a school leveled by the tsunami.

A woman from Australia seemed moved, remarking that despite having gone through so much, the people of Kamaishi had the strength and courage to get back on their feet.

"We've been able to recover to this point thanks to the support we received from people around the world," said Koetsu Nagayama, who oversees international tourism for the prefecture. "I hope visitors enjoy the games, because I think that's one way we can return their kindness."

A local high school student speaks about the 2011 disaster to spectators who have come for the Rugby World Cup. (Photo by Taro Yokozawa)

Prior to the kickoff, fans and athletes observed a moment of silence for victims of the disaster. Then at 2:15 p.m., the Rugby World Cup finally got underway in Kamaishi, once home to the Nippon Steel Kamaishi rugby team -- a powerhouse that won seven consecutive national championships during its heyday.

About 650 fans who couldn't attend the game in person were able to view it on a giant screen at a fan zone in a city-run hall.

"When I recall the state of things at the time of the disaster, I'm amazed that we're now hosting the World Cup," said a 65-year-old resident. Her home had been swept away in the tsunami, and she had been forced to live apart from her eldest son during the evacuation that followed.

"I'm so grateful to the many people who traveled to our city," she said through tears.

More than 40 retail stalls, most run by local businesses, were set up inside the venue, according to tournament officials. The proprietor of one, which served a local noodle dish called jajamen, was a woman in her 50s from the nearby city of Morioka. "I didn't have time to watch the match, but I could feel the excitement from the roars of the crowd and people coming to our stall," she said after the game.

The match ended with Uruguay upsetting favored Fiji, but fans lavished both with applause.

A former member of the Nippon Steel rugby team, 62-year-old Jiro Ishiyama watched the game from the stands. He had been a driving force behind the campaign to bring the event to Kamaishi. Just four months after the disaster, he pitched a plan to the mayor, then he and his friends traveled the country promoting it.

In 2017, Ishiyama joined Tokyo-based construction company Taisei to help build the stadium. "It was pure joy to watch children cheering in the stands, and feel the excitement along the road to the stadium," he said after the game. "I really love the enthusiasm Kamaishi and the people's positive attitude. They were the power behind our success."

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