Fencer Kenta Chida has lost his best friend to a tsunami, cyclist Kazunari Watanabe’s family has been split up by the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant crisis and world shooting champion Tomoyuki Matsuda owes thanks to fellow disaster survivors.
Such personal experiences might push them further at the London Olympics as they hope to hang on and cheer up Japan’s northeast region, which was ravaged by the earthquake-tsunami-nuclear disaster 16 months ago.
The resilience of people in the disaster-struck Tohoku region has spurred many Japanese athletes to give all they have on the world stage before the greatest sporting show on earth.
The unfancied national women’s soccer team won last year’s World Cup in Germany after they were shown by coach Norio Sasaki images of the devastation in a video which ended with a question: “What can we do ourselves?”
Now they are aiming for a golden double in London, with Tohoku-born defender Azusa Iwashimizu, 25, vowing: “I will fight not just for myself, but for all people in Tohoku.”
Of Japan’s 293 London-bound Olympians, one-tenth are directly related to Tohoku by having been born and/or schooled there.
Matsuda, who won the 50m pistol and the 10m air pistol at the 2010 world championships, has no background links to Tohoku, but experienced the catastrophe himself.
“I have been given strength by seeing how the disaster area is recovering,” said the 36-year-old police officer from Yokohama, who finished eighth in the 50m pistol at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. “I want to get a medal and give strength back to the disaster area.”
He was practicing at a firing range ahead of the national championships in the Pacific coast city of Ishinomaki when a magnitude 9.0 quake struck offshore and unleashed monster waves on March 11 last year.
He was evacuated to a nursing home for the aged and spent a sleepless night with no lighting and heating as the tsunami swallowed everything in the city and left 4,000 people dead or missing.
Nearly 19,000 lost their lives in the whole region.
“I wasn’t sure about what could have happened to me,” Matsuda said, recalling how he felt when he watched horrifying scenes on television on his way home, 400km away.
He won the 50m pistol and the 10m air pistol at the World Cup in Sydney only a few weeks later, believing that “my duty is to shoot.”
Chida learned that his hometown, the major fishing port of Kesennuma, was devastated by the tsunami when the fencer was on the road in Germany. His best friend from boyhood, Satoru Onodera, was drowned.
Chida finished a disappointing 11th in foil fencing at Beijing 2008, when his teammate Yuki Ota grabbed the silver.
It was Onodera who consoled Chida over drinks when the fencer visited his hometown after Beijing.
“It will be your turn in London,” Chida quoted the friend as telling him. “Go get a medal no matter what next time.”
Chida, 27 next month, struggled back to form and finished second at the Asian championships four months after the tragedy.
“I may become able to freely show my gratitude for my best friend and my longing for my hometown only when I hold a medal in my hand in London,” he said.
Watanabe, who finished 12th in the cycling individual sprint in Beijing, lived 3.5km from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant with his wife, parents, grandmother and the family of his older sister.