It was one of the premier soccer training grounds in Japan. The national team trained there. J.League teams trained there. It attracted players, coaches and fans.
But all that changed after March 11, 2011.
Because of the Great East Japan Earthquake, no soccer is being played at J-Village these days, which spreads across Naraha and Hirono towns in Fukushima Prefecture.
Nowadays, the one-time soccer facility is a base station for workers who are struggling to control the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. Every day at J-Village on the border of the 20-kilometer, no-entry zone around the stricken plant, about 3,000 people don protective work clothes before heading to the nuclear power plant, then return after their shifts for decontamination and to get some rest.
“Do not enter” signs stand prominently some 800 meters away from J-Village. The 11 natural-grass soccer grounds have been turned into parking lots and decontamination zones.
Tokyo Electric Power Co., operator of the stricken nuclear power plant, spent roughly 13 billion yen ($160 million) to build J-Village in 1997. The company then donated it to the Fukushima prefectural government as a way of saying thanks to the people of Fukushima for hosting its nuclear power facility.
TEPCO got further involved in the game in 2005, when it founded TEPCO Mareese, a side competing in the Nadeshiko League, the women's top league in Japan.
Mareese players were also TEPCO employees, and many of them worked at the nuclear power plant during the day and attended practices at J-Village at the end of their shifts. TEPCO Mareese helped boost the power company’s image by placing third in the Nadeshiko League for two straight years.
When the magnitude-9.0 earthquake rocked northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011, the TEPCO soccer team was training in Miyazaki Prefecture. Unable to return to their dormitories, the players were told to return to stay at their parents’ homes and await further instructions. They were also told to conceal the team logo on their bags and were banned from wearing their uniforms due to public outcry over TEPCO’s handling of the Fukushima nuclear accident.
In September 2011, TEPCO officially announced the disbandment of the team.
TEPCO Mareese players have since gone their separate ways.
Goalkeeper Misaki Amano received offers to play for other teams, but turned them all down. The 26-year-old former team captain said she felt guilty about doing what she wanted to do when people affected by the nuclear accident were being forced to leave their homes due to radiation fears.
Amano continues to work for TEPCO, and has relocated to an office in Saitama Prefecture. She was considering retiring from soccer last summer, but changed her mind after hooking up with some of her old teammates and hearing about the team's hometown from former Mareese manager Masaaki Kanno.
It's mostly quiet in Hirono now--most of the residents were forced to evacuate. But there are certain places that get crowded with power plant workers late at night. One of those places is Yakitori Ai, a grilled chicken restaurant that Kanno had frequented. Owner Mariko Fujinaga, 61, reopened the restaurant in June, even though her home was swept away by the tsunami.
Fujinaga had always hosted a street booth outside the venue whenever Mareese had a home game. When she saw Kanno for the first time after such a long absence, she hugged him and said, “I want to watch soccer again.”
After hearing this story, Amano realized there were people like Fujinaga who looked forward to watching soccer, and that it was OK to play her favorite sport again.
In February, a new team was formed to represent the Tohoku region. Eleven former Mareese players, including Amano, now play for Vegalta Sendai Ladies.
"We hope the team will become a symbol of areas recovering from the quake,” said team president Yoichi Shirahata.
Two Vegalta Sendai players were selected for the national team for an April 5 friendly against Brazil. Defender Kana Osafune and midfielder Yumi Uetsuji both came on the pitch as substitutes in a 4-1 victory over the powerful South Americans. Although competition remains heated, both Vegalta players hope to play for Nadeshiko Japan at this summer's London Olympics.
Soccer is slowly returning to the Hirano and Naraha area. The Hirono Town Hall was revived in March. Town officials are already discussing when they can resume soccer operations at J-Village someday.
A sign in front of the JR Hirono Station says it all, “The town where soccer shines."
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