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16 Mar 2011(Wed)

There is, of course, little value in discussing football at times like these. Those of us in Osaka were fortunate enough to be quite sheltered from the unfathomable tragedy unfolding in northeast Japan as the waves, seismic then tidal, hit on Friday afternoon. Under the Japan Meteorological Agency scale, which measures the degree of shaking at given points, the magnitude 9.0 earthquake was down to a level 3 by the time it reached this part of the country. Ground acceleration of this intensity was still enough to cause a significant swaying sensation in my 13th floor apartment, though presents little real danger. The first reason for concern was that the swaying simply did not stop.


Earthquake news is reported almost instantly via on-screen text on all major Japanese television channels, but the immediate and more convenient medium of choice for many in 2011 is social networking services. After five minutes, Facebook and Twitter were wondering why we were all still moving. After ten, the severity of the situation was slightly clearer; televisions had been switched on, normal broadcasting was being set aside, and tweets from Tokyo and the surrounding area carried an air of panic. We, of course, were the blessed ones. After fifteen minutes, my apartment – some 400 miles from the now-reported epicentre east of Sendai – was still rolling gently from side to side, like a small boat over a calm sea. Once the oscillations finally stopped, we could all sit and wait, helplessly, as the full horrors emerged.


Images of the tsunami that took an untold number of lives (officials in Iwate and Miyagi Prefectures have said the final death toll will ‘unquestionably’ reach five figures) and left around half a million homeless were relayed around the world in real time. Information, particularly of an official nature, was less forthcoming. On Friday evening, telecommunications were disrupted even in Osaka; anywhere beyond Shizuoka, virtually no mobile phone calls or text messages would reach their destination. For some reason, the mobile data networks provided the only reliable service for much of the country, making Twitter an invaluable source of information for those near the danger areas, stranded without public transport in Tokyo, and/or simply unable to follow and respond to developments by any other means.


Colm Smyth, an Irish blogger on Arsenal FC based in Yokohama, was among a number of tweeters to serve effectively as roving reporters throughout an immediate aftermath during which details in English (or, indeed, any language other than Japanese) were at a particular premium. With hundreds of thousands – perhaps millions – of commuters in the Greater Tokyo Area forced to spend several hours walking or otherwise improvising their journeys home, social media served as both commentary and guide. Of course, the tweets could not reach everyone; the Go! Go! Omiya Ardija blog offers an account from a teacher in Saitama Prefecture who finally arrived home at 6.30am on Saturday, unaware of the true consequences of the quake that had rattled his school 16 hours previously.


By now, the sun was rising over the east coast of Japan to cast light on the horrors left behind. More than three days later, one can still only speculate on the full extent of the tragedy, with entire towns in ruins and ever changing, often conflicting news of potential meltdowns at a nuclear power station in Fukushima Prefecture. Yet inspiration may, at least, be found in the deeply-rooted ability of the Japanese people to pull together in times of crisis. A long history of disaster and recovery is testament to such human quality; here in Kansai, where memories remain fresh of the Kobe earthquake in 1995, the desire to help in any little way possible is ubiquitously evident and heart-warming.


Football, and other sports that unite communities, will naturally step onto the back burner for the time being. The announcement from the J. League that last weekend’s matches would be postponed came within three hours of the earthquake, and was followed by a further postponement of all remaining domestic fixtures throughout the month of March. Uncertainty over the extent of damage sustained at facilities used by clubs close to the disaster area – particularly Vegalta Sendai, about which information has been scarce – may affect rescheduling arrangements. However, contrary to rumours stemming from South America yesterday, the JFA has said it currently still intends for the Japan national team to participate as guests in July’s Copa America in Argentina.


One matter still to be decided is whether or not this month’s international friendlies, against Montenegro in Shizuoka on 25 March and New Zealand in Tokyo four days later, will indeed take place. The association initially announced that the games would go ahead as planned before retracting this statement late on Monday evening; a final announcement is due later on Wednesday. There are many factors to be taken into consideration, but I would echo the hopeful sentiments expressed on Monday by Sergio Echigo, the Japanese-Brazilian former player and current leading football critic. Translated directly from his personal Twitter feed, Echigo opines the following:


If all we look at is footage of the tsunami or the nuclear plant, we will never find the power to recover. But surely we have all seen from last year’s World Cup and this year’s Asian Cup just how the Japan national team can touch the hearts of the people? How, then, might football actually be able to help people throughout Japan unite towards a recovery?


If there are issues with electricity, we could switch to daytime kickoffs. If there are still risks of aftershocks, we could switch the venues to Kansai. We must not miss this chance to empower hundreds of thousands or millions of people. This is a time where the Japan Football Association must show its ability to take action.


Finally, the two Osaka clubs have been forced into action this week with away trips to China in the AFC Champions League. Gamba Osaka were unfortunately beaten 2-1 by Tianjin Teda but enjoyed the backing of an entire nation – including large numbers of Cerezo Osaka fans employing social media to pledge their support. The blue side of the city will hopefully repay this generosity in kind when Cerezo take on Shandong Luneng on Wednesday evening.



Donations to support relief efforts for the earthquake and tsunami in Japan are being accepted by the Red Cross and a number of other institutions.


Japanese Red Cross Society: http://www.jrc.or.jp/

British Red Cross: http://www.redcross.org.uk/JapanTsunami

American Red Cross:

Global Giving: http://www.globalgiving.org/projects/japan-earthquake-tsunami-relief/

UNICEF Japan: http://www.unicef.or.jp/

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Hi Ben!

I am Maxim, I tried to contact you over twitter, I am a journalist working in Edinburgh on my own football website. I am trying to find someone to answer me some questions about how football is gonna be dealt with in Japan, if it can help the people find to normality. It would be just two or three questions per mail.

All the best, Maxim


Posted by: Maxim | 03/16/2011 at 05:52 AM

The decision to replace the friendlies with a charity match in Osaka is an excellent one (and not just because we live here!). We had tickets to the Montenegro game, but it's hard to argue with the difficulty of guaranteeing everyone's safety, especially the day after a largish earthquake centered in Shizuoka prefecture. Just as long as all this seismic activity doesn't go and trigger the Nankai quake a few years early ...

Posted by: Claire | 03/16/2011 at 10:34 PM

Well written piece, Ben. I'm glad you focused on the suffering, the positivity of the way that people have reacted and the fact that football can play a part. You didn't stoop to cheap shots about nuclear power as some uninformed people are doing at the moment.

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