By Douglas Hurcombe
5 years ago today, the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami devastated Japan. This is the story of how the fans of Vegalta Sendai, the club at the epicenter of the catastrophe, helped rebuild their city.
On the other side of the world, in London, a group of friends and filmmakers set out to document Vegalta’s first season following the disaster. With the film now a few months away from being released, Director Douglas Hurcombe reflects on how Vegalta Sendai and spirited supporters galvanized their community and became a national symbol of hope.
On the eve of only their second season in the top flight of Japanese football, the fans of Vegalta Sendai looked forward to the campaign with excitement but more than a degree of realism. Despite having a bright local coach who had studied under Arsene Wenger, they were acutely aware that, as relegation favourites, their focus had to be on survival.
On March 11th 2011, less than 24 hours before the first game, the word survival took on a distinctly different character for the people of Sendai, as a force 9-magnitude undersea earthquake shook the Pacific and sent a 40 metre high tsunami toward the Eastern coast of Japan at the speed of a jet airliner.
Along the Sendai coastline, the waves reached up to 10km inland, wreaking havoc and leaving nearly 20,000 dead or missing.
Like the casual taunts thrown at the ‘Terrone’ in the South of Italy by their illustrious Northern cousins, the supporters of Sendai, set in the heart of the agricultural North East of Japan, were used to being looked down upon by the more fashionable clubs. Over the years, their fiercely protective local pride had manifested itself as an arrogant joie de vivre.
They are the punk club. Renegades. Upstarts. Unrelenting and noisy but with a hard edge far, far removed from the naïve, uniform enthusiasm of the Japanese supporter seen at the 2002 World Cup. They know their football and mock other supporters for their lack of understanding.
A swirling, seething sea of yellow and blue, they party their way around the stadiums of Japan, bringing a pantomime brand of chaos that jumps and crowd-surfs to a soundtrack of The Ramones, Kiss and The Clash. Sandinista-style banners featuring Che Guevara, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley and American New-Punk song lyrics drip from every rafter and railing.
The megaphone wielding ‘fan leaders’ of the dedicated Core Supporters, strut like roman generals with drummers at their sides, balancing precariously on the concrete ramparts of their compact, English-styled stadium. They extoll their troops on to one more victory and the pogoing legions are eager to oblige and to emerge sweat-soaked and exhausted at the final whistle.
Sendai itself seemed to be the perfect opposite of its supporters – a quietly bustling city of one million people in one of Japan’s largest prefectures, skirted along one side with a picturesque coastline of quaint fishing communities. Politely old-fashioned, it went about its own business in its own way, far removed from any global guidebook or tourist map.
The antics of the fans had left the city perpetually puzzled as to how to regard this animal in its midst and outside of the close-knit community of supporters, interest in the club ran a very poor second to the local baseball team. But strangely and in a dramatic reminder of the traditional place of a club in the community, it was to the football stadium at its heart that many people instinctively made their way in the wake of the earthquake.
Along the coast, where the fan-base at been at its largest, the toll had been high. The tsunami had ripped through the peaceful coastal communities as if they hadn’t existed, rendering all but the most defiant buildings like matchwood.
With less than half the bodies recovered, no communications available and the infrastructure in ruins, few thought of football. It was therefore a surprise to many when the J-League announced the resumption of the league season on only April 23rd, in the interests of returning ‘Normality’ to Japan.
And so just over one month after the tragedy and with no pre-season to speak of, the players set off to make the 500 mile round-trip journey to face Kawasaki Frontale. Despite being buoyed by messages of support, many would have forgiven the club if that season they had slipped quietly back to the second division. But as they stepped onto the pitch, a remarkable sight would greet them and change the course of the club and even the region.
Against every expectation, 3,500 of their yellow and blue legion had battled their way across Japan to pack the away end of the Todoroki. With faces turned to the heavens and with their eyes closed tightly against the pouring rain, they sang a mesmerising version of the fans ironic club anthem, ‘Take Me Home, Country Road’.
Never had the sentiment seemed more appropriate, or the rousing chant more emotional. On that grey spring afternoon, the sound resonated from every corner of the ground as, unable to withstand the emotion, the Frontale home supporters joined in the refrain.
As Japan stood united in that stadium, the Vegalta Core Supporters unveiled a huge defiant banner, borne of agonising impotence in the face of the monumental tragedy. It was challenge to the players that would brook no argument. It simply read ‘For our friends, we do not lose again until we rebuild our hometown’.
Amazingly and with the eloquence of a boys-own picture-book story, Sendai scored the winning goal with virtually the last kick of the game. It would be the first win in a remarkable run of unbeaten games that would see them end the 2011 campaign in 4th place, the highest finish in the clubs history. Going on in the following season to agonisingly miss out on the title in the final game of the campaign.
In the rain at the Kawasaki stadium that day, the fans had not only found the voice of the city, but had come to symbolise the spirit of togetherness it needed to lift itself from the depths of desperation. One of the favourite chants among the supporters is based on the Twisted Sister classic ‘We’re not gonna take it’ and the lyrics seemed like a rallying call.
We’ve got the right to choose it and there ain’t no way we’ll lose it – this is our life, this is our song. We’ll fight the powers that be, don’t pick our destiny – ‘cause you don’t know us, you don’t belong.
This was the city, the fans and the players standing strong against all comers and against the worst that god and nature could throw at them. For a moment in time, the renegades had come to perfectly encapsulate the mood of the people – their energy spreading throughout every corner of this once sleeping city.
The talk in Sendai today is of the city being bigger and better than before and a new optimism has replaced the dark days of 2011. While it would be outrageous to suggest that this is down to a football club and their fans, there can be little doubt that days like 23rd April 2011 played their part – that it was one of many lines drawn in the sand by the people of North Eastern Japan.
The fans have been highly active since the tsunami in raising funds for the young people of the region and helping in the slow process of healing. They have all lost a little innocence but gained many friends and together, they face the battle of rebuilding their city one game and one challenge at a time.