A new stadium in the city of Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture, is the latest symbol of recovery in an area devastated by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Last month, international women’s soccer stars came to put on a show .
Professionals team up with the university team
A dozen Japanese players from foreign leagues returned home to form the “Protagonista” team. They adopted a Spanish name that evokes individual strength.
But they lost 1-5 to Waseda, Japan’s top college team.
The event was conceived by professional footballer Chiba Minori, who spent six seasons with several Spanish teams, including CD Femarguín SPAR Gran Canaria. His family lives in Iwate Prefecture, which was hit hard in 2011.
She organized a similar event last year and the response was so positive that she decided to do it again.
“I really feel that our energy on the pitch helps everyone who came out to watch,” Chiba says. “I hope we will give courage to those who struggle.”
Onagawa City struggles to bounce back
Onagawa City was hit by tsunamis after the Great East Japan Earthquake. Most of the town was destroyed and over 500 people were killed. Many residents lost their homes and were forced to flee to other areas.
The city was once home to 10,000 people and had a famous fishing industry. Today, the population is only about 60% of what it was.
Local officials are looking to tourism to boost the economy and they hope the new 600-seat Onagawa Stadium will help them.
A showcase for local talent
As well as boosting local morale, the match also served to showcase Japanese talent, who haven’t always had a chance to shine at home.
Togawa Yuki came from Spain to participate. His dream is to participate in the World Cup and the Olympics.
Togawa moved to Spain when she was 18. She has been playing for Real Oviedo Femenino and Real Racing Club de Santander for three years but hasn’t had many opportunities to show her abilities at home.
Others share his concern that distance is a barrier to getting noticed in Japan. At the same time, options in Japan are limited as the environment for female soccer players is relatively poor compared to their male counterparts.
It was only last year that a professional women’s league was established in Japan. Before that, national players had to adapt football to their working hours.
Give the example
Togawa says she wants to encourage participation in the sport she loves: “It would make me happy if our game encouraged some children to take an interest in football. I want them to see someone succeed overseas and ‘they feel they can do it too.”
Her message seemed to resonate with some girls in the crowd. “I thought the players were cool,” said one. Another said the skills on display were “amazing”.
A permanent commitment
Organizers hope to establish a tradition. “In the future, I would like to hold this tournament every year in Onagawa,” said match committee executive chairwoman Terada Mihoko.
“I hope to make this tournament a bridge between Japan and the world of women’s football,” said Terada. “I hope seeing the players living their dreams will encourage many more.”