The city of Kamaishi, in North-eastern Japan, has a brand new 16,187 seat rugby stadium. While this might seem unremarkable, the Recovery Memorial Stadium has a significant symbolic value to the people of Kamaishi, perhaps none more so than 61-year-old resident Jiro Ishiyama.
Back in the 1980s, Ishiyama represented the Nippon Steel rugby side based in Kamaishi. When he saw the devastation the 2011 tsunami caused his home city, he knew he had to help with the rebuilding effort. Ishiyama recognised the value of rugby to the city’s residents and was a key campaigner in the successful bid to make Kamaishi one of the host cities for the 2019 Rugby World Cup. He told Kamaishi’s official website that as “the main culprit behind the host city bid,” he felt a responsibility to help, and Ishiyima was not satisfied until he was part of the team that constructed the stadium.
Sport is a force for re-energising, reconstruction and motivating people
Dr. Helen Macnaughtan, Chair of the Japan Research Centre at SOAS, told me that when she visited Kamaishi, she found the stadium was being constructed 8km north of the city centre, in the very small town of Unosumai. The 2011 tsunami took two schools with it (fortunately all the pupils survived) and the stadium is now being built on this site. Dr Macnaughtan told me there are alternative rugby pitches in Kamaishi city that could have been extended for the World Cup. So, its location here – where the tsunami had the greatest impact, is very significant.
The stadium project is intended to have a life beyond the tournament for Unosumai residents. Dr Macnaughtan raised the concern with the World Cup representative that a town this size did not need a stadium, but she was assured it would also be used for concerts, festivals, and as an open public space. She found rugby was a “particular focus for the town” and argued the sport is “a force for re-energising, reconstruction and motivating people because there is going to be lots of attention on Kamaishi.” This is what Mr. Ishiyama wanted to achieve when he put together the bid for Kamaishi to be a host city.
When Namibia faces the winner of the Repechage tournament on the 13th of October 2019, Ishiyama will not be attending. He told the Kamaishi website he always brings the bad weather with him and he wants the matches “to go ahead under sunny, blue skies.” He hopes the memorial recovery stadium will “come to symbolise the end of Kamaishi’s sadness,” and the opening match will be an emotional occasion for everybody connected with the city. The hope is that sport will give the residents of Unosumai something positive to focus on and a platform for recovery.
Jacob Loose, MA International Studies and Diplomacy, Twitter: @jacobtloose