Even the Rugby World Cup Can't Save This Tsunami-Hit Part of Japan

(Bloomberg) -- At one end of the city of Kamaishi is a cemetery that is a grim reminder of that horrible day -- March 11, 2011 -- and its aftermath.

On the other is a gleaming new stadium built in an area that was submerged by deadly waves eight years ago, in which Japan will proudly host matches for this year’s Rugby World Cup. It symbolizes what the region has overcome since the tsunami ravaged Japan’s northeast coast.

Even the Rugby World Cup Can't Save This Tsunami-Hit Part of Japan

The 16,000-seat stadium will be the smallest venue to host the global rugby tournament, held every four years, holding two matches as a show of support for the recovery efforts. The largest of the event’s 12 venues can seat almost 60,000 more fans.

Kamaishi and Japan’s northeast coast, devastated by the magnitude-9.0 earthquake and tsunami that left about 20,000 people dead or missing, have been mostly rebuilt. New homes and refurbished roads showcase one of the developed world’s costliest restoration projects.
Yet the area now must contend with another threat -- a decline in the economy and population affecting regional Japan that is particularly worrisome in this region, hollowed out by the disaster.

Kenji Sano, 88, has seen his central Kamaishi home destroyed three times. The first was when a tsunami hit in 1933, the next by a U.S. naval bombardment in the last days of World War II and the third by the 2011 deluge. In his view, natural disasters are inevitable; the shifting demographics are inescapable.

Even the Rugby World Cup Can't Save This Tsunami-Hit Part of Japan

“My biggest worry is the population loss in this town. It is happening all over Japan but you don’t see that many children around here,” he said from his refurbished liquor store in a shopping district, where foot traffic has slowed to a trickle.

Population Slide

Iwate prefecture -- where Kamaishi is located -- has had a continuous decline in population since the 1960s. By 2040, 40 percent of its population is expected to be age 65 and older, compared with 35 percent for the country. At the time of the 2011 tsunami, it was home to 39,464 people. As of January, the population stood at 33,787, government data show. In Fukushima prefecture -- which suffered the triple hit of the earthquake, tsunami and a nuclear disaster -- the population dropped by 8.1 percent in eight years.

Even the Rugby World Cup Can't Save This Tsunami-Hit Part of Japan

Japan’s coastal regions had a burst of economic activity following the 2011 disaster from the 32 trillion yen ($286 billion) rebuilding effort, but their economic growth has lagged behind Japan’s capital and other major industrial centers more recently, government data show.

The Tohoku region, which includes three of the prefectures most affected by the disaster, outperformed the national growth rate for three years after 2011, but has since started to fall behind. Its industrial production under-performed national levels last year, while its jobs-to-applicant ratio has been below the national rate for the past two years, according to the economy ministry. The region accounts for 18 percent of Japan’s land mass yet produces about 6 percent of its GDP.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Friday he will visit Iwate prefecture over the weekend to see the recovery efforts, with Japan’s Kyodo News reporting Abe will inspect the Kamaishi stadium.

‘Dying Out’

Hairdresser Hatsue Ishida, 71, was one of the first to return, with her husband, reopening her shop that was submerged in about four meters of water. There are almost no signs of the devastation from eight years ago, when broken wood beams, collapsed walls and damaged cars littered the city streets. Still, she doesn’t see much of a future.

Even the Rugby World Cup Can't Save This Tsunami-Hit Part of Japan

“This area is dying out and it’s not going to get much better than it is now,” said Ishida, who thinks her hair salon will go when she does. “There are some people who just gave up and didn’t come back and the shopping area is getting smaller.”

Rugby Dreams

Through the Rugby World Cup, infrastructure projects to support it and a team of city planners managing its recovery, Kamaishi has fared better than other tsunami-devastated cities by slowing the rate of its population decline. The World Cup has helped it embrace projects such as partnering with Airbnb Inc. to lodge fans.

“It’s useless to just return to the way things were when you are battling depopulation and economic troubles,” said Kazunori Ishii, director of strategic management for Kamaishi. His plan is to transform the city.

Even the Rugby World Cup Can't Save This Tsunami-Hit Part of Japan

The World Cup is also a reminder of the city’s halcyon days in the 1960s and 1970s when its population peaked at about 80,000; its steel mills were churning at full speed and its Nippon Steel Kamaishi Rugby Football Club, known as the “Northern Iron Men,” began a run of seven straight league championships.

Coastal Kamaishi, dubbed “the city of steel, fish and rugby,” suffered 1,063 deaths in the 2011 tsunami. About a third of its homes were destroyed and a third of its people evacuated.

In the wake of the disaster, evacuation shelters gave way to temporary homes and new housing developments. As the city enters the last stages of reconstruction, a countdown clock for the Rugby World Cup sits in front of City Hall awaiting its first match on Sept. 25, when Fiji plays Uruguay.

Near the stadium are symbols of resilience, including a school where all 600 students fled to safety ahead of the tsunami, and the Horaikan Inn, where manager Akiko Iwasaki, 62, and some staff fled seconds before the wall of water slammed into the building.

She soon returned to what remained of the structure to feed evacuees and within a year Horaikan was back in business.

Even the Rugby World Cup Can't Save This Tsunami-Hit Part of Japan

“We are all interconnected and the Rugby World Cup will give us a chance to show the people of Japan and the world how much they helped us get back on our feet,” said Iwasaki, who sends off guests on the inn’s shuttle bus by waving a Kamaishi rugby flag.

The stadium is nearly finished, a new highway interchange has been completed and a restored rail connection is on the way.

“The World Cup has helped speed up the rebuilding of infrastructure,” said Yoshihiko Sakuraba, a former Japanese national team player and now the general manager of the Kamaishi Seawaves Rugby Football Club. “I hope we can use the World Cup as a driving force of the rebirth of Kamaishi.”

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