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How a Rugby Town Got Back in the Scrum

Known as “Rugby Town,” the city of Kamaishi in Iwate Prefecture suffered massive damage in 2011’s Great East Japan Earthquake, but picked itself up and got back in the game to become a Rugby World Cup 2019 venue.

The city of Kamaishi in Iwate Prefecture is home to the prestigious Kamaishi Seawaves RFC rugby club (previously known as Nippon Steel Rugby Football Club), winners of seven consecutive national championships. Like Hanazono in Osaka—Japan’s first-ever rugby stadium, built in 1929—Kamaishi is considered one of the meccas of Japanese rugby.

The Rugby World Cup will come to Asia and Japan for the first time in September 2019, and in 2015 Kamaishi was named one of twelve host cities. However, there were some twists and turns before this town—which suffered many fatalities and serious damage in the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011—was able to raise its hand as a candidate site. Takashi Masaki, general manager of the Kamaishi Rugby World Cup 2019 Promotion Headquarters, explains.

“The Rugby World Cup 2019 Discussion Meeting was held in December 2011, barely half a year after the disaster, and mainly consisted of volunteers who were rugby-related people living in Kamaishi,” Masaki recalls. “City residents had only just moved from evacuation shelters to temporary housing, and to be honest there were those who thought it was not a time to be thinking about rugby.”

The reconstruction plan Kamaishi created had three phases, with the first three years focusing primarily on restoration and reconstruction. As the plan entered its second phase in 2014, the physical infrastructure was largely finished. With citizens leading the way there was growing momentum behind uniting Kamaishi, rebuilding after the tragedy and starting to shape their hopes for the future. The first major step forward came when Kamaishi was selected as a Rugby World Cup host city. Everyone at the announcement’s public viewing—from children to the elderly—was cheering and shaking hands with sheer delight.

In preparation for hosting the Rugby World Cup, construction on what is tentatively being called Kamaishi Unosumai Recovery Memorial Stadium commenced in 2017, with work scheduled to finish by the end of July 2018. Other developments included setting up transportation for the twenty thousand visitors expected, the opening of a highway connecting Kamaishi with the inland area of Hanamaki, and reconstruction of the Sanriku coastal road connecting Sendai in Miyagi Prefecture and Hachinohe in Aomori Prefecture. Indeed, it was not only Kamaishi but the national government, Iwate Prefecture and many groups from both the public and private sectors that ended up forming a scrum to power ahead with the renewal.

Masaki says there are several messages built into this stadium, which is being built where two local schools used to be.

“Unosumai is right next to the ocean, and took a direct hit from the tsunami,” he notes. “Children from Unosumai Elementary School and Kamaishi Higashi Junior High School grabbed hold of each other, evacuated and narrowly escaped death. I’d like to thank the many people who have given their support, visit this area and see it as a symbol of recovery. I hope they’ll also see the strong figures working to rebuild the damaged areas in Kamaishi and elsewhere.”

“The Rugby World Cup is a special international sports tournament that takes seven weeks to get through forty-eight matches,” adds Akira Shimazu, CEO of the Rugby World Cup 2019 Organizing Committee. “The roughly 400,000 spectators we expect will come from all over the world and stay for an average of two to three weeks. They’ll probably include many people visiting Japan for the first time. I’m convinced that this is a wonderful opportunity to have deeper exchanges with such people, and for them to learn about various aspects of Japan.”