For professional sports fans in the Tohoku region of Japan, there is plenty to choose from all year round.
The Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami on March 11, 2011 forced leisure and entertainment to pause as survival, recreation and reconstruction became priorities. Nearly 20,000 people tragically died as a result of the natural disasters.
More than a decade later, memories of legendary sporting highlights (Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles’ 2013 Japan Series title) and Sendai legend Yuzuru Hanyu, who won two gold medals in figure skating and two world titles, remain special.
In addition, the development of the region’s top athletes into true stars or fan favorites ー Prime example: Shohei Ohtani, 2021 American League MVP, baseball star and graduate of Hanamaki Higashi High School and the pride of Oshu, Iwate Prefecture ー is significant.
In Tohoku, the sport did not disappear from the 2011 calendar.
A major event and a semblance of normalcy for the region occurred in late April 2011 when the Rakuten Eagles played their first home game in Sendai a month into the season. They played “home games” in Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture and Kobe while repairs were made to their earthquake-damaged stadium.
The Eagles, who began play in 2005, are Nippon Professional Baseball’s only Tohoku-based team. They were promoted as a regional team and helped expand their fan base in this baseball-mad nation.
With a focus on rugby, there is no hiding a key part of the region’s sporting identity.
In a magazine article published in the run-up to the 2019 Rugby World Cup, Yusuke Sato of Iwate Prefecture’s RWC Promotion Bureau detailed the long history of Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, as a rugby town.
Rugby offered recreation, camaraderie and a sense of pride to the city’s workers and residents.
“In 1959, Nippon Steel Corporation Kamaishi Rugby Football Club (originally known as Fuji Iron & Steel Kamaishi Rugby Club) was formed,” Sato recalled in an interview with matcha, an online publication. “The club won many titles including seven consecutive All-Japan Rugby Football Championships from 1978 to 1984, leading to the name ‘Ironmen of the North’. “
The earthquake and tsunami of November 3rd. had devastating effects on Kamaishi, more than 1,200 people lost their lives or are missing to this day.
In July 2009, Japan was awarded the 2019 Rugby World Cup and after the Tohoku disasters, the region’s recovery would also be linked to the sport.
The Kamaishi Recovery Memorial Stadium opened in August 2018. It was built on the site of a former elementary school and middle school, both of which were destroyed on March 11.
The new stadium, the only newly built Rugby World Cup venue, hosted the first game of the global extravaganza to a full capacity of over 16,000 fans who watched Uruguay take on Fiji on September 25.
Ahead of the game, World Rugby Chairman Bill Beaumont said: “Today is a very special day for World Rugby and for the people of Kamaishi as the town hosts its first game of Rugby World Cup 2019. When deciding on the venues for Japan 2019, it was clear that Kamaishi is a rugby-centric place, with a great rugby history and a passionate local fan base. From the moment World Rugby visited Kamaishi we knew it would be a unique, special and amazing Rugby World Cup venue.”
The Japan Rugby Football Union, the sport’s national governing body, has revised the structure of its men’s league, replacing the Japan Rugby Top League, which had company teams and players under contract as company employees, with Japan Rugby League One for the 2022 season.
In the second tier of the new league, the Kamaishi Seawaves (founded in 2001 and formerly known as Nippon Steel Corporation Kamaishi) is one of six clubs and the only one based in Tohoku. There are 12 first division clubs and six more in the third division.
TIED TOGETHER: Kamaishi City takes another step towards recovery by playing RWC 2019 hosts
A growing market for basketball
For more than a decade, the region has been a growing basketball market with the arrival of several new professional teams and the 2016 merger of the bj-league and NBL. Since 2010, the Akita Northern Happinets, Yamagata Wyverns, Iwate Big Bulls, Aomori Wat’s and Fukushima Firebonds were formed and have brought a major basketball presence to the Northeast region of Honshu along with the Sendai 89ers, who began playing the game in 2005.
All six Tohoku prefectures have professional teams. Akita, who was runner-up in the bj-league championship in 2014 and 2015, is currently playing in the first division of the b. league. Aomori, Fukushima, Sendai and Yamagata play in the second division and Iwate plays in B3.
In a 2016 interview with this reporter, Motofumi Iguchi, ex-Big Bulls and front office manager of Osaka Evessa, discussed the regional rivalry between Tohoku prefectures and how it translates to the sport.
“It is very important for the Tohoku people to challenge Sendai,” Iguchi commented. “It’s not just about sports because Sendai is the largest city in Tohoku. … They like to play against the city next to you.”
The 89ers’ primary gym opened on 11/3. badly damaged, and the team’s home opener at the repaired location, Sendai City Gymnasium, for the 2011–12 season was a big deal for the city. Also a symbol of recovery. More than 5,000 fans packed the gym on October 29 to watch the 89ers host the Northern Happinets.
Bob Pierce, then Sendai’s coach, was moved by the pre-game scene.
“It was amazing going into this gym and seeing so many fans,” Pierce told me. “It was a very emotional moment when our captain Takehiko Shimura stood on center court to greet the fans with ‘tadaima!’ (I’m back!) and hear 5,064 voices calling ‘okaeri!’ (Welcome back!).”
Akita-born guard Kenichi Takahashi, one of the most popular players in ’89 history, viewed that game and the team’s road to recovery as significant. For him it was a duty.
“What we can do is play basketball,” said Takahashi, who retired in 2017, at the club’s training facility the day before the home opener of the 2011-12 season. “We can try to win to make them happy.”
There are currently 53 teams under the B. League umbrella, and Tohoku has a strong presence in the First, Second, and Third Divisions.
Football has a strong presence in the region
Although there are no Tohoku-based teams in the first division of the J. League, also known as J1, this season, the region has strong ties to the world’s most popular sport. Consider this: J-Village, the national training center for soccer and other sports, is located in Fukushima Prefecture. It opened in 1997; It fully reopened in 2019, although some sporting activities resumed the year before. Between 3.11. and its reopening, it served as the headquarters for recovery-related functions.
Among the 22 J.League Second Division teams for the 2022 season, four call home Tohoku: Blaublitz Akita, Iwate Grulla Morioka, Montedio Yamagata, and Vegalta Sendai.
In J3, which currently has 18 teams, three are from Tohoku’s northernmost region: Fukushima United, Iwaki FC (founded in 2012, the latest of the clubs promoted to the J.League) and Vanraure Hachinohe (founded in 2006). Launched in 2014, J3 expanded the J.League hierarchy and gave local and regional teams from the lower echelons of Japan’s football ladder a path to reach J3 and possibly J2 and J1 thereafter.
For example, ReinMeer Aomori, founded in 1995, played in the fourth-rate Japan Football League for the first time in 2016. The club are aiming for a gradual promotion to the J1 by 2030, according to published reports.
A rich history of horse racing
Did you know that Fukushima Racecourse opened in 1918?
It is one of 10 Japan Racing Association tracks across the country. The main annual races (Grade 3) are:
- April: Fukushima Himba piles, 1,800 meters
- July: Tanabata Sho, 1,800
- July: Radio Nikkei Sho, 2,000
- November: Fukushima Kinen, 2,000
In the second tier of Japanese horse racing, the National Association of Racing has local racing facilities run by local owners or governments. In Iwate Prefecture, two of the 15 operate statewide: Mizusawa Racecourse (original facility opened in 1901; current location 1965) and Morioka Racecourse (opened in 1996).
Motorsport venue fills a niche in the north
For more than 45 years, Sportsland SUGO has hosted countless races, providing motorsport enthusiasts and teams with entertainment and a place to test their skills.
Opened in 1975 in Murata, Miyagi Prefecture, Sportsland SUGO includes Super GT, Super Formula and Motor Cross among its regular events at its 2.1 million square foot facilities.
Golf’s Challenge Tour stops in Akita every year
The Men’s Japan Challenge Tour is a series of golf tournaments for development, also known by its sponsor name (AbemaTV Tour). This year, the Michinoku Challenge Tournament will be held from July 27th to 29th at Minami Akita Country Club in Akita Prefecture. Twelve tournaments are on the tour in 2022.
Ice rinks provide opportunities to develop skills and compete
With snow blanketing the landscape every winter, it’s no surprise that Tohoku has a vibrant winter sports culture, including speed skating, figure skating and ice hockey for athletes of all ages.
Every prefecture in the region has ice rinks where the youth aspire to emulate Yuzuru Hanyu and other local sports heroes.
According to this Japanese-language directory, there are 17 operating ice rinks in Tohoku.
The best current Tohoku sports idols
Baseball players Ohtani and current Rakuten Eagles pitcher Masahiro Tanaka, who rejoins the team in 2021 after seven years with the New York Yankees, are always among Tohoku fans’ favorite athletes.
Hanyu has a huge following at home and abroad, and Beijing 2022 Olympic Games ski jumping gold medalist Ryoyu Kobayashi (native from Iwate) has increased his popularity in recent years.
Author: Ed Odeven
Follow Ed on JAPAN Forward [Japan Sports Notebook] here Sundays, in [Odds and Evens] here during the week and Twitter ＠ed_odevenand find him on JAPAN Forward special sports website, Sports Look.