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Former Japan rugby player helps build Kamaishi stadium for World Cup

Jiro Ishiyama, right, a former prop of the Nippon Steel Kamaishi team, plays during an opening event for Kamaishi Unosumai Memorial Stadium in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, on Aug. 19, 2018. Ishiyama helped build the stadium as a construction worker. (Kyodo)

KAMAISHI, Japan (Kyodo) -- Former Japan rugby player Jiro Ishiyama not only talks a big game, he is a man who puts a premium on action.

"I was among a few who first proposed that Kamaishi host World Cup games (in 2019)," Ishiyama said at the site of a new rugby stadium in the northeastern city, which was devastated in the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

"So I must do something to make it happen. That's why I returned to Kamaishi," for the first time in 25 years, said 61-year-old construction worker Ishiyama, who is helping build the new stadium.

The facility, the only stadium newly constructed for the World Cup among the 12 venues, was officially opened on Sunday, when thousands attended celebratory events there.

Its seating capacity of 6,000 will be temporarily expanded to 16,000 to host two World Cup games, one between Fiji and Uruguay, and another between Namibia and the repechage winner.

Ishiyama was a loosehead prop who played for the now-defunct Nippon Steel Kamaishi Works team. The side won the national championship for an unprecedented seven years in a row through 1985, putting the small fishing town in Iwate Prefecture, far from Tokyo, on the map.

Ishiyama played for a high school little known in rugby circles, in his home prefecture of Akita, west of Iwate. After being recruited by Nippon Steel, he worked hard and gained fame as a member of the corporate team, also winning 19 caps for the Japan national side.

After retiring from the team and leaving Kamaishi in 1992, Ishiyama was not interested in a coaching position and subsequently distanced himself from the sport.

But the magnitude-9.0 quake and tsunami that wreaked havoc in Kamaishi and other areas in the northeast and east of Japan on March 11, 2011, put his life on a new trajectory.

"I saw an almost flattened Kamaishi on TV and asked myself what I can do to help people out there," said Ishiyama, who at the time worked for an affiliate of Nippon Steel in Shizuoka Prefecture, central Japan.

Ishiyama used his car to bring relief materials to Kamaishi and talked with people in the grief-stricken community. But he felt he needed to do something more, harkening back to his rugby days.

When former members of the Nippon Steel rugby team gathered two months after the tsunami, Ishiyama and Yoshiyuki Takahashi, who was general manager of a Kamaishi-based rugby team, discussed the idea of Kamaishi hosting a World Cup game eight years later.

Ishiyama joined a group that formally asked the city to work on hosting World Cup games in 2019 during a meeting with Mayor Takenori Noda, who Ishiyama said stopped short of accepting the request.

"We fully understood it was too early to talk about the matter in public," Ishiyama said, referring to difficulties discussing the idea of building a rugby stadium before temporary housing could be constructed in the hard-hit community.

Kamaishi had an estimated population of 39,400 before the quake and a total of 1,064 citizens died in the disaster, according to the city office.

"I decided to do what I could do from outside Kamaishi for the time being so we could see Kamaishi picked as a host city of the World Cup," Ishiyama said.

He serves as a representative of the Scrum Kamaishi nonprofit organization formed after the quake and has been involved in activities aimed at helping Kamaishi reconstruct and boosting the spirits of people affected by the disaster.

Ishiyama's dream came true in March 2015 when Kamaishi was selected as one of the 12 host cities of the World Cup. The construction work for a new stadium began in April 2017, a month before Ishiyama turned 60, his corporate retirement age.

When Ishiyama looked for something to do after retirement, Taisei Corp. offered him a construction job at the host site, Kamaishi Unosumai Memorial Stadium. He moved to Kamaishi alone from his home in Inzai, near Tokyo.

"First I was surprised to hear that Ishiyama was returning to Kamaishi as a builder of the new rugby stadium after his retirement," said Ishiyama's former teammate Hiroyuki Takahashi, 62.

"But I remember that Ishiyama is a man who can leave all behind, even his family, once he decides to run toward a goal," said Takahashi, who was a flanker in the Nippon Steel Kamaishi team.

"I couldn't feel happier as I have been actually involved in the construction of a new stadium for the World Cup," Ishiyama said looking around the premises in early July.

The stadium, which will be ready for the World Cup after the final stage of work is completed next year, stands in an area where most buildings were washed away in the disaster seven years ago.

It is a seaside location that Ishiyama would visit on holidays when he was young. "I had a great experience in Kamaishi that can only be shared with a few. I have been repaying the favor," Ishiyama said.

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