It’s a warm fall day at the baseball park. The home team is ahead by a couple of runs. Vendors walk up and down the aisle selling beer, popcorn and edamame beans. The scene is so cheerful, and so Japanese, that it’s easy not to notice that the flags atop the scoreboard in centre field are at half-mast.
Beyond the scoreboard lies the city, and past it the ocean that suddenly smashed into the northeastern coast of Japan this spring, turning fishing towns to rubble and leaving almost 20,000 people dead or missing.
Seven months on, the scars are wide and deep. Downtown Sendai has largely returned to normal, but whole coastal neighbourhoods of the region’s largest city are missing, with only the occasional neatly stacked pile of smashed cars and twisted metal to remind that people ever lived there. The smaller towns up and down the seaside fared even worse; some are gone, perhaps never to be rebuilt.
But inside Sendai’s ballpark, you see none of this. For three hours on a Sunday afternoon, it’s balls and strikes, pitchers, catchers and cheerleaders. A cherished taste of the normal to which this part of Japan longs to return.
The hometown Rakuten Eagles are lagging in the standings this year, but it doesn’t matter. The fact that there’s baseball being played at all in Sendai this year is a triumph.
The start of Japan’s 2011 baseball season was delayed three weeks by the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters that started hammering the country on March 11, and the Eagles were forced to play their home games away from Sendai. Their home ballpark (the unfortunately named Kleenex Stadium) sustained structural damage during the 9.1-magnitude quake that preceded the tsunami, and fears were high about radiation from the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, just more than 100 kilometres to the south.
But by the end of April, the stadium was declared safe and the Eagles returned to a defiantly packed house. It was an emotional night. “It felt like a championship game, rather than the start of a season. It gave people a feeling that maybe things can get back to normal, that maybe there’s hope,” said Marty Kuehnert, a long-time Sendai resident and senior adviser to the baseball club.
“After the earthquake happened, we thought everything was lost, that it’s impossible to recover what we had before,” said Kazuko Sugawara, a 50-year-old English teacher. Never a huge fan of baseball, she was at Sunday’s game sporting a white Rakuten Eagles jersey because she said the team and the stadium have become “a symbol of recovery.”
It’s a recovery in process. While the ballpark looks almost unscathed to fans and players, there are in fact two banks of seats in the outfield that are still cordoned off as unsafe because of earthquake damage. Long cracks are still visible in other parts of the building.
Sendai, a city of one million, is in much the same bandaged-but-walking state. Restaurants and hotels are bustling again, and the city’s airport – which saw its runways rapidly disappear on March 11 under black water in a scene captured on closed-circuit television and viewed by millions around the world – started operating normally again last month.
But drive out past the airport toward the coast and you see the hollowed-out hulls of what once were people’s homes. It’s unclear when, or if, these low-lying areas will ever be rebuilt.
Residents, too, have sustained damage that can at first be hard to see. A government survey taken in the battered nearby city of Ishinomaki found that 43 per cent of survivors had sleep disorders that many linked to their haunted memories of the disaster. Twenty per cent said they were drinking more heavily than before March 11, while more than a third said they were smoking more frequently.
The Kyodo news service reported a 40-per-cent jump this year in the number of couples seeking divorce in Sendai.
And despite the rapturous return in April, attendance at the Rakuten Eagles games has actually since dipped slightly compared with last year’s numbers. A $30 seat in the outfield bleachers is now a fortune to supporters who lost their homes and livelihoods to the tsunami.
“I haven’t gone to a game this year because of the situation,” said Yoshimi Kikuchi, a 69-year-old retiree and avid Eagles fan who spent Sunday afternoon instead digging at the empty plot where his family’s two-storey house stood before it was washed away. “It’s difficult to relax. We’re living in temporary housing and we’re nervous about the future.”
Other fans are simply gone. Shoichi Okawa and his brother have been taking their children to Rakuten Eagles games for years. The tradition continues, but two chairs are empty. One would have been filled by Mr. Okawa’s father, the other by his 14-year-old nephew Takashi. Both died when their home near the airport was obliterated by the water on March 11.
“Takashi was a pitcher on his junior high school team,” Mr. Okawa said, discreetly wiping at a tear. “He was going to be quite a star.”