Japan win raises roof in tsunami morgue
RIFU, Japan (AFP) –
Local schoolboy Yuzuru Hanyu’s emotional figure skating victory in an arena pressed into service as a morgue after the Japanese tsunami was a tonic for an area struggling to get back on its feet.
Sport is being used as part of the healing process in the region of northeast Japan devastated by the earthquake and tsunami that struck in March 2011, destroying whole communities and leaving more than 18,000 people dead.
The NHK Trophy, a Grand Prix event staged at the 7,000-seat Sekisui Heim Super Arena, is the latest in a list of sporting fixtures brought to the area, including under-20 women’s football world cup matches and an international triathlon.
The arena itself has already been used for concerts and other sports events, including the national handball championships in July, after it was refurbished and blessed by a Shinto priest when its emergency mission ended.
The Japan Skating Federation said it picked the region for the NHK Trophy to “send a message about our recovery, in response to support from around the world.”
“Thank you from Tohoku, Japan,” read a message projected in several languages onto the ice, referring to the region battered by the disaster, as medallists skated at a gala exhibition on Sunday.
The success in the men’s competition the previous day of Hanyu, a 17-year-old high school student from the adjoining city of Sendai, brought welcome cheer to the home fans.
“Hanyu is helping us stay strong,” said Yukiko Yonezawa, selling fried noodles at a stall outside the venue.
Hanyu, whose home and local skating rink were damaged in last year’s disaster, was ecstatic after his second career Grand Prix victory, stroking the ice and admitting: “I talked to the rink, saying ‘I thank you very much’.”
The 2010 world junior champion broke his own world short-programme record on Friday and topped Saturday’s free skate, refusing to be put off even by two moderate earthquakes that brought back dark memories.
American ice dancing pair Meryl Davis and Charlie White, who won the ice dance title, were also caught up in the emotion of the occasion.
“I think one of the most beautiful things about ice dance is that it can really move you emotionally,” said Davis.
“So it’s an honour for us to be able to perform for the audience and hopefully lift their spirits in some sort of way.”
The 2011 world champions have spent the past two summers doing shows in Japan and one was “always dedicated to the victims of the tsunami,” said Davis.
For three months following the tsunami, the arena used for the NHK Trophy served as a mortuary, one of many public buildings pressed into action as regular facilities were overwhelmed.
About 1,000 bodies were examined by coroners and seen by bereaved families at the arena, which lies on high ground just five miles (eight kilometres) from the coast where a wall of water swept ashore, crushing whole communities.
Despite efforts to get the area back on its feet, the devastation in Tohoku is still starkly apparent and a huge stretch of shoreline bears testimony to Japan’s worst post-war calamity.
Hundreds of thousands of people remain effectively homeless, either because their communities have not yet been rebuilt or because the radiation that leaked from Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant means it is still unsafe to return.
There is more sporting action planned, with Japanese London Olympic medallists including female wrestling champion Hitomi Obara set to parade in downtown Sendai this coming weekend.
And on December 26 a charity football match involving J-League stars and Europe-based Japanese players will be staged in the city.