The presence of survivors and families provided far more meaning than the game between Seattle and Oakland. Among those honored at the game were the parents of a young American woman, Taylor Anderson, who was teaching in Japan and died after taking her students to high ground.
TOKYO — The novelty of a wee-hours, televised start to the Major League Baseball season across the world Wednesday stirred the passions of a hardy knot of Seattle fans, who undoubtedly drew quizzical looks from spouses and cold stares from bosses over their bleary-eyed daze following the Mariners' 3-1 win in 11 innings over the Oakland A's.
In those same hours at the Tokyo Dome, passions of a different sort were stirred by the same event for different reasons. A handful of survivors of a year-old devastation were grateful that anyone cared enough to offer them a sliver of the international spotlight that follows major sports everywhere.
"I’m really happy that I was invited to the opening game and I was able to be on the field and interact with the players," said 11-year-old Little Leaguer Haruka Kumagai. "The tsunami washed away our home, and we had to move to another place for two months and then to another place for a while.
"From there, I had to go a long way to baseball practice every Saturday and Sunday, and those trips were very hard."
Some of those listening to Haruka-san via an interpreter recently were complaining about the rigors of international travel. If we all stood up straight at that moment, we could have walked under a door.
He was one of three youth baseball players, as well as four adults, brought to Tokyo to tell of lives twisted and ended by the 9.0 earthquake and subsequent 30-foot tsunami that reached three miles into the Tohoku region March 11, 2011.
As technology brings us more intimate, ubiquitous contact with global disasters natural and human-made, our survival mechanism takes over and numbs us. By bringing something so many enjoy, big-time baseball, next door to a place turned to hell, what was closed became open again.
As the horrors of Ishinomaki, a port city of 160,000 hardest hit by the tectonic convulsion, poured from the TV last year, Naho Hozumi had her mind opened. It stayed open. She left a comfortable, middle-class life and family in Tokyo to load trucks with supplies. Shortly thereafter, she went directly to the black waters five hours north and began in the mud and darkness to sort the dead from the living. She hasn't returned home.
Despite no skills or training in the field, Hozumi, 48, was appointed by the government within a month as disaster relief program manager to organize the volunteer help.
"I started out from nothing, actually, and since then, it’s been over a year and right now, there are more than 1,000 volunteers and many more sponsors who are trying to meet the needs of the disaster area," she said through an interpreter. "After a year, the amount of volunteers are not as high as they used to be, but with this big (baseball) event, we feel that the importance of volunteering has been restored. So we would like to continue our progress as much as possible to meet more needs of those who are suffering."
One of the volunteers is Shinji Takai, who before the disaster quit his job as a software engineer to become a strawberry farmer in the area of the killing waters. Beyond the human casualties — more than 20,000 in Ishinowaki alone — the tsunami washed away most of the topsoil and poisoned the rest with oil, gas, and other industrial toxins from shoreside paper mills.
Farm washed away, Takai began helping others pick through the debris of their lives. What struck him most were family photographs damaged in the rubble. Family history occupies a high place in most Japanese families. Using his software skills, Takai, 39, began restoring the photos. From a few has grown a library of more than a million images, now residing digitally in a new facility accessible to the region.
"I would like to continue this project in the future as well, because the number of pictures that we collected is enormous," he said through an interpreter. "That’s how much memories people have, and they all (would be) lost. So we collected just a part of their memories, and we restored them. We really need to keep this project going. I believe this is not just peoples’ memories but the memories of the disaster itself. It’s something we cannot forget for a long time."
A brief day trip through the disaster zone Tuesday (March 28), arranged by MLB, revealed a scene never to be forgotten — a scabrous shoreline landscape that is often barren, broken up by ravaged remains of homes and businesses still standing because the owners are dead or broke.
The more inland portion of the city still works, but is now crammed with FEMA-like temporary housing as well as the heavy equipment of removal and restoration.
The pace of restoration has been heavily criticized. And while the criticism seems well-placed, daily lives, especially children's, must be given structure. The Taylor Anderson Memorial Fund began with donations of English books, and is now providing assistance for kids in orphanages and college scholarships for high school graduates.
Anderson, a native of Richmond, Va., learned Japanese in college and moved to Ishinomaki in 2008 to teach English. When the tsunami warning sounded, the popular teacher herded her students to high ground, then attempted to bicycle home when the worst happened. Her body was found 10 days later.
Her parents, Andy and Jean, were invited to the pre-game ceremony, where they watched with Takai and Hozumi for the first time a video produced by MLB of their stories so powerful it eclipsed anything that transpired in the game that night, won by the Mariners, 3-1.
"It was an incredibly moving ceremony," Andy Anderson said. "We felt honored for Taylor that her work was recognized, and the work (supported) that she’s inspired us to do.
"We felt that when Taylor went missing in that tsunami, she was probably in a shelter or in a school and helping. When we found out that she had passed away in the tsunami, we felt like we would carry on what she would have done, which was to stay and to help the place that she had grown to love.
"She had made a real connection to Japan, so we wanted to continue that."
Anytime a corporate powerhouse such as MLB gets involved in a charitable project, eyebrows go into auto-arch. Then 11-year-old Ryuto Abe spoke.
"It was such a pleasure to be able to interact with the players that I’ve only seen on TV," he said. "I lost my mother in the tsunami, but I’m quite sure that she was watching me being with the players from up there, so I’m really thankful.
"Since I lost my mother, I’ve had to be with someone else, and my grandmother’s home was totaled as well. So we had to move to a shelter for a little while, and there was no one who would cook for me. There were people helping me, but it was totally different circumstances than I was used to. It was a very difficult time, but luckily, after a while, I got used to it."
It's spring, time for baseball and cherry blossoms on either side of the Pacific. Some things, however, have no seasons, but desperately need an end, and a renewal.