Masaki Moriyama is unsure whether he’s allowed to smile. During the game that has just finished, the 12 year old conceded two goals that he normally would have saved. One shot from far away slid through his hands, another one from the wing sailed into the box and Masaki got down too late. The goalkeeper looked insecure, which the other team noticed. Happily, his teammates still managed to score twice to secure a draw, although their opponents were much weaker than them.

Masaki and the other Nihonmatsu FC players are now sitting on a heap of sport bags, covered in blue training jackets, analysing their imperfect performance. They need to win the next game, the final one of the group stage, otherwise they won’t make it through to the second round. Disappointment and anxiety are in the air. “Come on boys”, shouts their coach as he claps his hands in encouragement. “We can still make it. The next game will be ours!” In some of the children’s eyes a glimpse of optimism is visible, others seem proud of having scored goals, regardless of what their coach is telling them. But Masaki, sitting slightly apart from the group, cannot get rid of his somewhat sad look. He knows he has been the weak link and that things might look better now if it hadn’t been for his errors. 

As the coach finishes his short motivational speech, most of the boys run to their parents or to watch the other teams playing. On this rare day, an early Sunday afternoon in spring 2013, Fukushima City seems alive again. It is the first tournament in the open air in two years. The once proud sporting facilities, hosting two football pitches, a baseball field and tracks for athletics, have not been in use since spring 2011. But today, all of this is forgotten. Contaminated soil is still here, bundled in brick forms, covered up and packed together within easy reach, lying around less than a minute’s walk away on the same sports terrain. But at least, the kids are playing again. All looks like good fun. Mostly.

As his mates have got up from the heap of bags, Masaki Moriyama, a boy with short dark hair and a chubby face, prefers to stay seated. “This is not my real team,” he whispers. Masaki spent his first footballing years in his hometown, Namie, located less than an hour from these spacious sports facilities in Fukushima City. Masaki never wanted to play for Nihonmatsu FC, a local team he once battled against together with his friends from home.

But like many others, Masaki has not been on home soil for a while. He’s not allowed to because nobody knows the exact dangers that still linger there. “Our club still exists, but only on paper,” says Masaki’s father, who is approaching his son to cheer him up. “Nobody is using the ground in Namie anymore. They might actually shut everything down eventually.” Masaki is listening to his father’s words and looks even sadder now. 

“Dad, I want to play with my old friends again.” 

“I know, my son. One day, you will.” But none of them seem to believe it.

In March 2011, Masaki, his younger brother and his parents were given one day to pack their most important belongings and leave everything else behind. The government had found that radiation levels in Namie were so high that it would have been irresponsible, if not negligent, to allow people to continue living there. Once the Moriyama family heard about the evacuation order, some of the things Masaki just had to take along were his gloves and the jersey of Eiji Kawashima, the number-one goalkeeper of Japan’s national team.

But as the family of four settled in a temporary housing in Fukushima City, it soon became apparent to Masaki that most things that were important to him inevitably belonged to his hometown and didn’t fit into his suitcase. Many of his friends have been settled in other parts of Japan, his school has been closed ever since, and his room, with a J-League blanket on his bed and football posters on the walls, has remained abandoned. Masaki has no idea what it looks like today, and perhaps he never will.

The events of 11 March 2011, have transformed the lives of the 100 children who are playing their favourite game on this sunny Sunday in Fukushima City. In some way, they changed the life of every person in Japan. Four years on, everybody can recall what they were doing and where they were when, in the early afternoon, the ground shook with a magnitude no living Japanese had ever experienced. At the epicentre off the east coast, the quake measured a striking value of 9.0, which was unprecedented even in Japan. Shortly after, the news reported a 20 metre-high tsunami wave approaching the coast.

TV pictures showed people, cars and whole buildings being washed away. The waves also knocked out the nuclear power plant in Fukushima prefecture, leading to meltdowns in three out of six reactors. The plant is located right on the coast, around 250km north of Tokyo, the biggest metropolis on the planet. Analysis would show that it was largely a matter of luck that no clouds carrying nuclear steam approached Tokyo – the wind just happened to blow the other way, saving the livelihoods of up to 35 million people. Instead of heading south, the winds took the nuclear poison to the north and east, which meant that not only did around 2,000 people die from the earthquake and tsunami, but at least 300,000 had to leave their homes.

Masaki Moriyama’s fate is one out of thousands. The refugees took shelter in all parts of the country and around half of them are yet to return to their homes. In the most highly radiated places, such as Namie, a resettlement date is still unknown despite ongoing decontamination works. Most temporary homes that the government has provided lack space for privacy and sometimes walls are said to be too thin to keep people warm in winter. But since so many people not only lost their homes but also their jobs after the catastrophe, there is often nowhere else to go.

This reality has made a youth football tournament, which once would happen every other weekend, a special occasion in Fukushima City. The prefecture’s capital has grown in response to the evacuation orders. It’s located 60km inland from the east coast and has somewhat controversially been deemed safe enough to live in. But outdoor activities for children have long been largely prevented because of radiation worries. Gyms have been overcrowded and many children stopped playing sport.

Football is certainly not the Japanese public’s primary worry these days. However, the so-called “triple disaster”, the trinity of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear cataclysm, may have crippled the development of the country’s most popular sport among the young. In the worst case, Japan has lost a generation of talent. “Many of my old friends have stopped playing because their parents wouldn’t let them,” says Moriyama as he takes the hand of his protective dad. “I am never going to stop. But maybe I’m just lucky that my parents still allow me to play.”

Countless young Japanese have not been so lucky. The appearance of the abandoned towns in Fukushima prefecture, such as the village of Iitate, explains why. Iitate is located 40km from the reactors and was once home to 6,000 people. In April 2011, six weeks after the beginning of the nuclear disaster, high radiation levels were suddenly identified in the air. People had to escape in a matter of hours. Ever since, Iitate has been labelled a ‘ghost town’ and the description is not far-fetched.

On the doorsteps of the once inhabited houses, wild grass is growing. A few streets are blocked with red-and-white tape and barriers to indicate those areas where radiation is so high that it is dangerous to enter even for just a short time. Here and there, fixed Geiger counters give the current radiation level, which oscillates according to the direction of the wind Even for a place as small as this, the level of silence in Iitate is remarkable. All one can hear are birds and dogs that have taken over the place.

Iitate’s junior high school was once the place where the village’s dreams, hopes and youthful illusions were vibrant. Today, there is not much but sadness. Leaves and bird droppings float on the contaminated water in the swimming pool, the sports ground in front of the school’s main building is covered with the traces of vultures. On the doorstep to the dressing-room lie two pairs of boots; next to them is a football with almost no air pressure left.

Norio Kanno cannot get these pictures out of his head. He is the mayor of Iitate and for four years has been administering his abandoned hometown from an office in the outskirts of Fukushima City. “We were a village full of hope and potential. We also had a good football team,” he says in improvised headquarters packed with cardboard boxes. “It makes me sad that this happened to us. I am doing all I can to get as many people to move back to Iitate very soon. But radiation levels are still very high.”

Kanno does not expect that Iitate will ever be the same again. Young people are less likely to return to the village than the elderly, and talented young footballers have lost four years of systematic training. The situation is similar in other parts of the Tohoku region. Fukushima was once the national hub for football education: Japan’s national football association’s elite training centre, the J-Village, is located in the area. But since 2011, the centre has had to be used as a sort of crisis management control tower. 

Football has been booming in Japan for years and the country’s progress has been notable. In the early 1990s, the sport was still minor compared to baseball or sumo, but today these two disciplines envy the following and sponsorship money football is attracting. Japan established the J.League, the country’s first professional football division, in 1993. During the league’s early years, aged stars like the Brazilian Zico, the German World Cup-winner Pierre Littbarski, the Englishman Gary Lineker and the Spanish striker Julio Salinas went there to cash in before retirement and draw Japanese crowds into the stadiums. In 1998, Japan’s national team qualified for a World Cup for the first time.

Since then, Japan have qualified for every World Cup and have become Asia’s leading national team. Instead of importing expensive international stars who have already had their day, today’s J.League teams are known for their exports of young talent. At the 2012 Olympics in London, the women’s national team won silver, while the men just missed out on bronze. Elsewhere in Asia, countries have been copying Japan’s youth development.

Will the 2011 catastrophe one day be known as a long-term drawback to the country’s much-praised footballing system? Hardly anyone denies this possibility. Toyoharu Takata, vice-president of the J-Village, has even put it the other way round: “We all cannot get back on our feet if football does not recover here.”

But the impact of the triple disaster has been so varied that positive football developments have emerged too. 80km north of Fukushima City, Sayaka Suzuki is distributing flyers at an entrance to the Yurtec Stadium. They depict the line-up of the heroes of Sendai. Half an hour before kick-off, the chants of the home team’s supporters are clearly audible from far away. Vegalta Sendai, the only J.League club from the Tohoku area, are playing against Sagan Tosu, a team from the south-west. 

Their boisterousness is common in Japan’s otherwise quiet football scene that often associates loud and vigorous support with hooliganism. In Sendai, however, the chanting has become a crucial part of the team. “This really only started after the tsunami,” Suzuki, a short and skinny woman with a high voice, says as loudly as she possibly can. Suzuki is a proud Vegalta supporter, as most people from Sendai are. The city did not suffer nuclear radiation, but parts of it, including the Yurtec Stadium, were severely damaged by the earthquake and tsunami.

The J.League’s itinerary follows the calendar year, so the disaster hit only days before the 2011 season was scheduled to start. At the time, Vegalta Sendai were a new member of Japan’s top-tier and the lack of experience as well as the limited budget meant that avoiding relegation would be considered a success. “Nobody expected the team to make it, but there was hope,” Suzuki recalls. The earthquake and tsunami shrunk this hope to a glimmer. Because of fears of nuclear radiation, one foreign player asked for his contract to be dissolved immediately. For the same reason, Vegalta’s management could not attract any new players. Who would still go there?

“We were struggling so badly, we had no idea how to move forward,” remembers Morishige Matsuba. He is responsible for the club’s strategic planning. At the point of the disaster, Matsuba had only just come to Sendai to join the club and he admits that he was also wondering whether to cancel the appointment. He might have done so, he says, if the cause hadn’t suddenly become much bigger than football: “So many Vegalta supporters had died, others had lost their homes, or at least everybody knew someone to whom something terrible had happened. Then, the stadium was damaged too. If everyone jumps off the ship now, I thought to myself, Vegalta and football in the whole Tohoku region might collapse.”

Many people had similar thoughts. When Vegalta played their first home game of the 2011 season, with some weeks delay, the Yurtec Stadium was packed with people dressed in yellow and blue, the club’s colours. Suzuki, who was also at the opening match, says the atmosphere on that day was “surreal”. “Some were laughing out of joy to see their friends alive, others were crying in mourning. Suddenly, Vegalta had become so much more than a football club.” To some, it became a new home. Shortly before the final whistle, a huge banner moved through the stadium and topped all emotions of the day. It made a promise to everyone, the players as much as the supporters: “Thank you to our friends. We will not lose a game until we have our city back.”

What sounded like the hubris typical in any football stadium would be turned into reality, bit by bit, week after week. The underdogs Vegalta did not lose their first match, or the second, or the third. Meanwhile, the stadium was rebuilt for €2.3 million and the supporters imported one classical football chant after another. “We’re Not Gonna Take It” by Twisted Sister became an evergreen in the Yurtec Stadium, as much as “Take me Home,” borrowed from John Denver’s “Country Roads”. The supporters joined in and screamed them at home and away games. There was hardly a minute during a Vegalta game when the fans were not making a huge noise.

“This was new to the J.League,” Suzuki says proudly. Vegalta supporters interpreted football in a way previously unseen in Japan. And it must have helped the players to stand up against their often stronger opponents. Vegalta remained unbeaten for 11 games and, over the whole season, they only lost two games in the Yurtec Stadium. When the season came to an end in December 2011, Vegalta were fourth, a remarkable achievement for relegation candidates. A year later, Vegalta Sendai came second, qualifying for the Asian Champions League.

Although Vegalta Sendai are now back to mediocrity, the club’s story has become recognised nationwide as a phoenix rising from the ashes. It is also Tohoku’s role-model for resilience and fighting spirit. Even Europeans have been inspired. The British filmmakers Douglas Hurcombe and Geoff Trodd travelled to Sendai to produce a documentary about the club. “Vegalta really has this punk mentality you also find at some European clubs,” Hurcombe says. “The area is dominated by farming and fishing and was a slow developer culturally in the history of Japan. So there had always been a bit of an inferiority complex among the people, which had manifested itself as a brash, bold defiance among the fans – especially when they played the ‘big city’ clubs like Tokyo.” But when Vegalta in 2008 signed Makoto Teguramori as head coach, things started to change. Teguramori is not only a Tohoku local, but had also acquired coaching skills under Arsène Wenger during his time at Japan’s Nagoya as well as Arsenal – valuable experiences that few coaches in Japan have.

“Technically, the team played in a very similar style to the Arsenal sides of Wenger’s early career,” says Hurcombe. “The only thing they lacked was self-belief.” In 2011, though, the team and the whole club transformed the freedom of being the underdog and the pain of destruction into an incredible resilience. Football, Take Me Home, Hurcombe and Trodd’s documentary – which is yet to be released – focuses on the club’s ultras and how their support of the team has also cheered up the whole city. “We felt that it was a great metaphor for everyone who had to start again, build again, and learn to live again after the tragedy,” Hurcombe said.

But in a sense, a movie about the recovery of Sendai can only tell part of the whole story. The biggest city in Tohoku was able to mobilise the necessary resources for reconstruction relatively easily. Elsewhere near Japan’s notoriously underprivileged east coast, there are few signs of progress even four years after the catastrophe. Where whole villages were washed away, a full recovery to pre-disaster levels is impossible. This is true for football as much as for all other facets of life. One of Norio Kanno’s colleagues once tried to count all the football clubs that now exist on paper but have no training sessions, no coaches, no players… In the small office, two officials said they estimated the number to be in the hundreds.

In the areas where the disaster’s destruction cannot be seen or felt but only be measured with cutting-edge technology, the dominant emotion is not pain for the losses suffered. It is anxiety that every raindrop, every breeze and every breath can have life-changing, life-shortening consequences. Back in Fukushima City at the youth tournament where, on the surface, everyone is having a great time, Juan Saldívar walks away from the populated football pitches to talk straight.

The Mexican is the man who organised this youth tournament and someone who has his very own connection to the Tohoku area. Nine years ago, Saldívar was transferred to a semi-professional football club here, believing his new team would be playing professionally the following season. When the project had failed and after Saldívar had spent a few years trying to win promotion, he decided to end his career in response to the disaster and dedicate himself to youth coaching. His work proved more necessary than he would ever have dared to believe. Because the number of football teams had declined so radically, partly due to a sudden lack of available facilities, it had become difficult even to organise games and tournaments. Saldívar started to rent an indoor pitch and invited schoolchildren to come and play again. And he spent months talking to city officials and parents to put together this outdoor tournament.

“The biggest obstacle is probably the parents,” Saldívar says at low volume as he checks whether anyone is listening. A strong wind is blowing around his ears. “And I can understand them. Who would want their child to be unsafe?” Saldívar raises his left hand to catch some of the wind. “We don’t know if this is contaminated. Things can change in a matter of days or even hours.” But on the other hand, Saldívar wants Fukushima’s children to enjoy life. “Sport has the ability to relieve stress and football happens to be the most popular. It’s very important not to lose that culture here. You can really see it today: the kids are smiling when they are allowed to play.”

That Sunday afternoon in spring 2013 was an attempt to reboot. Juan Saldívar had been hoping even more teams would come to play, with more players on each team. But not every parent wanted to trust him that the sky, the wind and the air would remain free of excessive radiation. Many of those parents who did arrive with their children were carrying Geiger counters. Before each match, they would hastily walk over the pitch to take measures of the air at grass level. “If the radiation is too high, we’re going home, you understand,” Yukari Miura, the mother of seven-year-old Amane says, worried that her daughter might get grass in her mouth. “But she loves playing football, so what can I do?”

Amane and her mother live in Fukushima City, 60km away from the crippled nuclear power plant. Some of their family in Tokyo have been telling them to leave the area. “My aunt says it’s unsafe to live here. But we don’t want to move away. Amane also just started playing football here recently.”

Most people in the areas that have shown elevated radiation levels have asked themselves whether to move away or not. Saldívar is one of them. In late 2014, his Fukushima venture had to come to an end. In an email, he explains that his family wanted to leave Fukushima because of fears of radiation. At first, only Saldívar’s two children and his Japanese wife migrated away. “I had to stay there a bit longer,” Saldívar writes, “to support Fukushima’s youth football. We have been playing tournaments against teams from other prefectures of the country and you can notice that the children from Fukushima lack physical strength and speed. I believe it’s because we cannot play and practise enough.”

Saldívar might never return to Fukushima City. His seven-year-old daughter is now playing football though. If she’s a big talent as Saldívar hopes, she might one day join Japan’s women’s national team, world champions in 2011. Now that the little girl no longer lives in Fukushima, her father thinks, he chances for sporting success look a bit better.

This article appeared on Episode Five of the Blizzard Podcast. You can see which other articles we have featured by searching the Podcast tag, but we'd really like you to subscribe which you can do through iTunes, Soundcloud, our RSS feed or wherever you usually get your podcasts of choice.