x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Japan rugby outfit playing so that people don't forget tsunami crisis

Players on the Japanese national rugby team are playing, in part, because family members suffering from the twin disasters at home have extolled them to do so.

Rugby has helped Kosuke Endo and his teammates cope with the tragedies.
Rugby has helped Kosuke Endo and his teammates cope with the tragedies.

As Japan's squad of chiselled rugby players charge around the field playing a unique and barely fathomable warm-up game, — which seems to be a hybrid of football, rugby and wrestling — the desert air is filled with laughter.

Alisi Tupuailai, a powerfully-built winger of Samoan heritage who qualifies to play for Japan's national team on residency grounds, bumps one of his indigenous teammates and sends him flying.

When his kick then ends in an ungainly air shot, the mirth within the team is barely controllable.

Anyone would think these professional sportsmen barely had a care in the world. Momentarily at least, the miseries of the past months in their homeland seem to have been forgotten. But forget is the last thing these players want to do.

"It was a very difficult decision for us to start the camp a month ago," John Kirwan, the Japan head coach and a former All Black, said. "We spoke to [Kensuke] Hatakeyama and another player, who is not with us in Dubai [Shinya Makabe], whose families lost their homes in the tsunami.

"Their families said, 'Go and represent us. Show the world we have courage and we will not give up'. That was hard, but now the players are trying not to forget."

Hatakeyama was made captain for Japan's match against Kazakhstan in Bangkok on Saturday, and the team dedicated their subsequent win to his family.

The 25-year-old prop now lives in Tokyo, where he concentrates on his rugby career with Suntory Sungoliath, but his family home was washed away when the tsunami consumed the town of Kesennuma in the Miyagi Prefecture.

The family are now reliant on his income from the sport, even though he has not yet managed to work out the most efficient way to send a share of his wages to his parents.

"That is the reality of what is happening in that area now," Hatakeyama said. "They haven't got their house, they haven't got the income from their company. Everything was washed away.

"Now my parents are living in an area of the same town which was not hit by the tsunami so they are safe. My family told me I should go on concentrate on rugby, and because of that I have been more focused than usual."

Japanese sport was essentially put on hold after the disasters. The baseball season was delayed, and football's J-League was suspended. However, the three rugby players most affected by the tragedy - Hatakeyama, Makabe and Hitoshi Ono - persuaded the rest of the national team to maintain their commitment to play in the Asian Five Nations.

When the squad first came together at a camp in Miyazaki, in the south-west of the country, ahead of the competition, they spent as much time coming up with ideas to help in the relief work.

Drawing on the example of the earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, giving food was deemed unrealistic, as, with limited storage space, it would quickly spoil.

A plan to go aroundcollecting money in buckets was deemed inappropriate. The area had also suffered in recent times from the effects of a volcano and an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease.

Instead the team plan to play a match against an all-star select XV next month to raise funds, and maintain awareness of what is happening back at home via their Five Nations matches - all of which have had to be played away from Japan.

Ono has been given the honour of leading the side against the UAE tomorrow. His family own a farm near the damaged reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, and they were unable to produce the milk which provides for their income.

The game will also be dedicated to the recovery team who went in to begin a project to repair the reactor in the first week since tragedy struck. "For us, that is courage," said Kirwan, who was in Italy at the time.

Few people in the sport have a greater understanding of the human psyche than the former All Black, who has done much in the past to raise awareness of depression, a condition from which he suffers.

"I always remember when my dad passed away, my mum said, 'For two weeks it was fantastic, I got to see everyone, all our cousins and aunties. Then after two weeks the phone stopped and I was alone'. That was the hardest thing," he said.

"People are still homeless after the tsunami. People are still lacking food and water. Every week what we are trying to do is keep the awareness going and not forget what is happening at home."

 

pradley@thenational.ae