Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on June 12, 2019.
The Japanese city of Kamaishi has a history of withstanding powerful tsunamis, but none have proved as devastating as the one that engulfed the town on March 11 eight years ago.
Local hotel owner Akiko Iwasaki remembers that day vividly – how the wave scooped her up from behind and pulled her into its wrath.
“It came suddenly and I felt no fear nor pain,” she tells CNN World Rugby. “I just wondered why I was in the water. Then I started to only think of survival.”
Buildings were reduced to rubble, vehicles were swept away, and soon the whole city was unrecognizable. Friends and family members went missing, many never to be seen again.
As Kamaishi came to terms with the chaos, residents gathered on the fourth floor of Horaikan, Iwasaki’s hotel.
“We spent a night holding each other,” she says. “It felt really secure to stay close to each other. We couldn’t stand being alone but we spent the night staying together. That gave us a bond.”
Rugby in the soul
Iwasaki has seen the city rally together over the years, as brick by brick it has been rebuilt with one prominent new addition now standing proudly on the coast.
The Kamaishi Recovery Memorial Stadium was completed in August last year, 13 months before it opens its arms for the Rugby World Cup. The tournament – the first to be hosted in Asia – will signal a remarkable rebirth for a city that has borne such hardship.
Rugby has long been part of Kamaishi’s lifeblood. Between 1979 and 1985, the local side won seven consecutive national titles, and it very much remains part of the city’s fabric today.
The Kamaishi Seawaves – formed in 2001 as Nippon Steel Corporation Kamaishi – currently ply their trade in the Top Challenge League, the second tier of Japanese rugby.
In the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami in 2001, the club’s role became increasingly significant.
“There were many children who were upset about not being able to exercise because there was no ground or park out there,” says assistant coach Yu Saeki.
“We wanted to relieve their stress by taking them to the rugby ground to play and eat together. I saw their faces change when they arrived here. I truly believe in the transformative power of sports.”
While Saeki admits there was some opposition to the new stadium in Kamaishi – it reportedly cost 3.9 billion yen ($36M) to build, much of which was raised by the government – there is hope that the Rugby World Cup will breathe life into the stricken city.
In the area, 30 percent of homes were damaged or destroyed by the tsunami, 60 percent of businesses were overrun by floodwater and nearly all the local fishing fleet was destroyed. About 1,000 people from Kamaishi were killed and 3,000 homes were lost.
Construction of the stadium, which stands on the former site of the city’s primary and middle schools, began in April 2017. Its capacity of 6,000 will be increased to 16,000 for the World Cup later this year when it hosts Fiji against Uruguay and Namibia against Canada in the group stages.
“I believe it’s been accelerating the rebuilding process very much, though there were some who disagreed to holding the World Cup here,” said Saeki.
“We’re looking forward to it and it’s a great opportunity to show it to various people. I think it’s been a driving force to revive … I, personally, have always wanted to encourage Kamaishi to play rugby and believe the World Cup will be great news for the local people.”
Iwasaki concurs, and says that the prospect of a major sporting event has motivated her to keep running her hotel in Kamaishi.
“We’ve been keeping hope as we have the World Cup as our objective,” she says. “If we didn’t have the World Cup and had to only watch construction, I might have lost my guts to run the business.
“As we’re expecting the World Cup and people from all over the world, we’ve been able to keep up and endure.”
The power to endure defines the people of Kamaishi. On March 3 each year – the anniversary of the tsunami and earthquake – local residents write messages to those who lost their lives on that day, telling them of the strength they have drawn from adversity.
“The day of the tsunami, we fly balloons with comments written on them,” says Iwasaki. “We send up messages to the sky saying, ‘I’m doing alright,’ or ‘Don’t worry, I’m keeping up.’
“I want to accomplish the life they couldn’t. Being happy together, I want to raise children with hope. That’s what I want to do for those watching from the sky.”
CNN’s Alex Thomas contributed to this report