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How sport helped Japan rebuild after the tsunami

In the year since tragedy struck, athletes have been key in aiding recovery

The road winding through the mountains to the rocky, pine-clad Pacific coast offered no notice of the wasteland ahead. Tohoku, the rural north-east region of Japan's main island Honshu, was once called "the end of the line" but the sight that greeted Japanese international footballer Mitsuo Ogasawara at his destination was akin to the end of the world. This was Rikuzentakata, after the tsunami.

"I didn't see much change in the landscape until I reached the area hit by the tsunami,"said the Kashima Antlers midfielder. "It was absolute devastation. I couldn't recognise where I was. There were dead bodies still buried under the rubble. I couldn't believe it"

Ogasawara, the 2009 J-League Player of the Year, is the Japanese sportsman most closely identified with the Great East Japan Earthquake, the official name for the terrible events of 11 March 2011 that claimed 15,854 lives – all but 61 of them in Tohoku – and left another 3,724 missing.

The tsunami killed 340 people in Ofunato, the harbour town where Ogasawara starred for the high-school football team, and another 1,691 in Rikuzentakata, the next town down the coast, where his wife Kaori's family live. Like so many Japanese, he suffered the awful uncertainty of not knowing their fate. Eventually his father, after cycling several hours from the interior, found his in-laws alive. "I couldn't contact them for four or five days, and feared the worst. One classmate lost his grandmother. Another lost his home." The voice is coming down a phone line almost 6,000 miles away but it is still possible to detect the sadness.

Sport, like every other facet of everyday existence in Japan, came to a standstill 12 months ago tomorrow. In the case of football, the J-League season did not resume until 23 April. Ogasawara's Antlers team did not return to their earthquake-damaged stadium, not far from Tokyo, before June.

With baseball, traditionally Japan's No 1 team sport, the season was delayed until 12 April, after the players' union argued that "the public hadn't recovered sufficiently to be able to enjoy watching sport", as TV commentator Takahito Ishihara explains. When the campaign did begin, to save electricity there were fewer night games and a time restriction of three hours and 30 minutes per match.

Like baseball, the football world staged a series of charity matches – the first between Japan's national team and a J-League All-Stars selection – which together raised around £1.6m. The Japan captain, Makoto Hasebe, donated all the royalties from his autobiography to Unicef, and Ogasawara played his own part. He arranged collections of clothing and kit from J-League clubs and their delivery to stricken areas. With fellow professionals from Tohoku he set up a project to hold children's football clinics and invite youngsters to games. And one year into the Japanese government's estimated 10-year, £178bn, restoration programme, he worries about the waning interest in those left with nothing. "We can't forget there are people still in need."

After the earthquake, many foreign sportsmen flew out of Japan, some never to return. However, one man happy to stay and help was Paul Hodder, coach of the Kamaishi Seawaves rugby club, based in the regional second division.

The irony of the name is not lost on the New Zealander, who captained West Hartlepool in the mid-Nineties. Kamaishi, a decaying steel town, was home to the world's deepest breakwater, 63 metres deep and 1,960m long. As Hodder observes sadly, "this tsunami just picked it up and chucked it away" – at the cost of 885 lives.

Located inland, the rugby ground was out of the range of the wave and for the next fortnight its clubhouse became a haven for players and their families. "We weren't allowed back into our apartments and had no power." Hodder and his 12 professionals – including ex-All Black Pita Alatini – soon got to work. "With Kamaishi being a community rugby team it was payback time from us. No disrespect, but any foreign players in the baseball were shipped off and out within two days, even from places like Osaka. We made sure our families were safe and then it was 'let's get in there and help'. We volunteered down at the city office. There was a mountain of trucks coming in with supplies to be unloaded. As rugby players, that is our bread and butter so we were taking water and rice and fuels out to the evacuation centres."

With evacuation centres filling any spare land, the only remaining space for sport was the rugby pitch, making it a focal point. Today, the wave logo has been removed from the club's crest yet as Kamaishi is rebuilt, rugby offers the promise of something positive. "Hopefully, a new stadium will happen for the 2019 World Cup," Hodder says.

Ogasawara has a similar dream "to build a football ground" on the same stretch of coast. He will take part in a symbolic opening match of the new J-League season today when Antlers face Vegalta Sendai, Tohoku's leading club.

Twelve months after the domino disasters of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear reactor, Bill Shankly's line about football, life and death comes to mind when Ogasawara suggests that his sport seems no less significant for it all – but rather the opposite. "There are so many people suffering so much adversity who look forward to watching football," he says, citing the impact of Japan's triumph at last July's Women's World Cup. Their team included Aya Sameshima, who had worked at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, and the coach, Norio Sasaki, showed his squad photos of tsunami-hit towns as a motivational tool. "Even little things, like a win, can give people courage and hope," Sasaki said at the time, and who are we to argue?