This is Part 4 of a seven-part series on how athletes, residents and teams have been struggling in the quake-hit areas since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
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In the middle of February, Ikuo Yamamoto told members of the Takata Club baseball team that he would no longer be their manager.
The club in Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, had been a leading light in Tohoku amateur baseball before the Great East Japan Earthquake, winning the Tohoku regional competition and making the all-Japan club championships for the first time in 22 years.
The team’s home field, the Takata Matsubara ballpark, was being renovated at a cost of 370 million yen ($4.5 million), work that was scheduled to be completed four days after the March 11 earthquake.
That quake and the ensuing tsunami devastated the team. Two members died in the disaster, and many players lost family members and homes. The ballpark itself was damaged.
At the end of summer, some members suggested getting the team back together, but Yamamoto, 50, could not bring himself to do it.
“It never occurred to me to even play baseball. I couldn’t get myself in the mood to play ball.” he says.
As the Rikuzentakata city government’s environment division chief, his job brought him in daily contact with people who had lost everything in the disaster.
He received about 800 death certificates at a counter in a pre-fabricated building used by the city government in March 2011 alone, compared with about 300 in a typical year. For a long time after the quake, people requesting official family records and other documents necessary for completing inheritance formalities lined up outside the office.
Yamamoto says he felt a responsibility to work quickly and accurately because of the difficulties of the residents he was trying to help and eventually found himself losing the energy or interest to do anything other than work.
The truism that sport can help lift the spirits of disaster survivors has been wheeled out many times since the March 11 disasters, but the reality for many victims is more complex, according to Koubun Wakashima, an associate professor of clinical psychology at Tohoku University.
“It’s not uncommon for survivors to lose interest in their hobbies after the quake,” says Wakashima, who has been studying the mental health of March 11 survivors. “Emotional fatigue is especially severe in those who have been working on the front lines of the recovery efforts.”
According to Wakashima, some 12.5 percent of city hall officials who responded to a survey in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, were diagnosed as needing counseling. Many respondents were feeling despair and a loss of interest in daily activities due to their workloads and stress levels.
“Playing sports would refresh these people’s souls. But, in reality, it’s hard for them to think about sports.”
The Takata Club resumed full-scale training in early March, without Yamamoto. It has four new members and has received donations of balls and uniforms from teams it played at the 2010 all-Japan club championships. Vital financial support has come from other teams in Iwate Prefecture, and the new team’s dream is another place at the national championships.
Team captain Shun Kumagai, 30, says: “I like this club. I realized that after being away from baseball for a year.”
New manager Shoji Yamane, 42, says: “We hope to provide happy news as a representative of Rikuzentakata city.”
Yamamoto is not involved but he has kept his name registered with the Iwate baseball federation as a player for the club. He admits it is a symbolic gesture--“At this age, there is no chance I’m going to play in a game”--but it is a last connection to a sport he hopes, one day, to return to.
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