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Rugby stadium opens in tsunami-hit city, boosting recovery hopes

Photo shows the main stand of Kamaishi Unosumai Memorial Stadium in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, on Aug. 17, 2018, two days before the stadium opens. Built on the grounds of two schools that were badly damaged by the tsunami following the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011, the stadium has been purpose-built for the 2019 Rugby World Cup. (Kyodo)

KAMAISHI, Iwate (Kyodo) -- Thousands of spectators, including some affected by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated the region, gathered for the opening of a new rugby stadium in Kamaishi on Sunday hoping that the northeastern Japan city's hosting of World Cup games next year will help speed up the post-disaster recovery.

The facility, the only stadium newly constructed for the World Cup among the 12 venues, was built on a riverside lot in the Unosumai area where most buildings were washed away and two public schools were heavily damaged in the disaster seven years ago.

Kamaishi Unosumai Memorial Stadium has a seating capacity of 6,000 and will host two games -- one between Fiji and Uruguay on Sept. 25, 2019, and the other between Namibia and the repechage winner that Oct. 13. Japan will host the sport's World Cup for the first time.

Officials in the city in Iwate Prefecture said temporary stands will be built before the World Cup so the stadium can accommodate 16,000 spectators.

The estimated building cost of 3.9 billion yen ($35 million) was largely covered by central government subsidies. The total amount is expected to grow to expand the bleachers.

Kamaishi Mayor Takenori Noda told reporters, "We want to express our gratitude in hosting the World Cup for all the help Kamaishi received from all over the world on behalf of all areas affected by the disaster."

Looking back to when some residents showed negative or tepid reactions toward the bid to host a World Cup game, Noda said, "We could not even think of such a thing at that time, but it is great to see it happen."

"I am happy to see this happen," Naoki Ogasawara, a 31-year-old pharmacist in Kamaishi, said.

"We need to create something symbolizing the reconstruction of Iwate Prefecture and I hope this new stadium will be one," Ogasawara said.

"We know that the people of Kamaishi have been through a lot. We know also that the rugby people of Kamaishi have helped with the recovery," Brett Gosper, CEO of World Rugby, said in a video message.

Following a decades-old tradition among rugby fans in the Pacific fishing town, supporters of local side Kamaishi Seawaves flew big catch flags ahead of a preseason friendly against Yamaha Jubilo at the stadium.

The stadium contains a playing field with a "hybrid" lawn that has a stronger grip than normal grass, according to the city office.

Planted on special turf that includes glass fiber, the lawn's roots engage with the artificial texture underground so players can grip more firmly, according to Nihon Field System Corp., which installed the French system called AirFibr in the Kamaishi stadium.

A series of events were held to celebrate the opening of the stadium such as an exhibition match involving former members of the Kobe Steel team and the now-defunct side of Nippon Steel Kamaishi Works.

The teams attracted a big following in Japan as Nippon Steel Kamaishi won the annual national championship for an unprecedented seven years in a row until 1985 and Kobe Steel did likewise in the 1980s and 1990s.

A concert featuring singer Ayaka Hirahara and students from one of the damaged schools, Kamaishi East Junior High School, entertained the spectators.

Kamaishi had an estimated population of 39,400 before the quake. A total of 1,064 residents died in the March 11, 2011 disaster, according to the city office.

The city announced in July 2014 that it would try to host World Cup matches even before details of a plan to build a stadium had been discussed.

A group of former members of Nippon Steel Kamaishi formed the Scrum Kamaishi nonprofit organization three months after the quake to help increase supporter for Kamaishi Seawaves as well as organize promotional activities for the World Cup bid.

In October 2013 another NPO, Kamaishi Link, began operating Rugby Cafe, a communication facility aimed at increasing rugby fans with a display of jerseys and other rugby-related goods in the devastated Unosumai area.

The organizers of the World Cup picked Kamaishi as a host city in March 2015.

The other host cities include Sapporo, Kumagaya, Tokyo, Yokohama, Toyota, Kobe, Higashiosaka, Fukuoka and Kumamoto.

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