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Hitomi Ono and the 'Wa' concept

Hitomi Ono plays for Mynavi Vegalta Sendai Ladies in the Nadeshiko League for seven years. She started her career at TEPCO Mareeze, a club which was highly affected by the 2011 earthquake in the Fukushima area. Read her story.

Hitomi Ono celebrates after scoring a goal against Jef United Ichihara

All pictures © VEGALTA SENDAI

Fabrice Deschamps
From Amsterdam

On 11 March 2011, a lot of things changed in Northern Japan. That day, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake hit the Pacific coast of Tōhoku, triggering a tsunami. About 16,000 people lost their lives, 2,500 are still missing, 120,000 buildings collapsed, 4,4 million people were without electricity, and 1.5 million without water.

A tragedy which had consequences for many others. Not as dramatic, but still. Hitomi Ono was just starting her football career in her new club, TEPCO Mareeze, a well established team in the Nadeshiko League, based in Fukushima,southern Tohoku. She had signed right after university and was just starting the new season, with a lot of hopes.

And the earthquake happened. "I was not in Fukushima that day, we had a training camp in Southern Japan, in Miyazaki. The training was supposed to start at 3 pm, the earthquake happened at 2:45. We found out about the tsunami before the session, but we did not get much information so we still trained. After training, we watched TV and got info through the radio. There had been an alert in Miyazaki as well, which showed it was not like a ‘usual’ tsunami", she explained. Seven years later, Hitomi still remembers everything.

"I have many relatives in the area, I was trying to reach them but the connection proved very difficult, the network was down. I did not know what to do, I was lost and we started to hear that the situation was critical back home. It was night already and there was no way to get in touch with anyone. I eventually managed to reach my father who was in touch with the rest of my family so that helped a lot, I was relieved."

Hitomi Ono at training with her club of Mynavi Vegalta Sendai Ladies

However, unfortunately TEPCO Mareeze was unable to continue, both for safety reasons but also because TEPCO was running the nuclear plant in Fukushima, and as such could not afford to finance the club's operations. The players could not come back. "As Fukushima was declared a no-go area, I was stationed in the TEPCO office in Tokyo. I was living in a hotel. That was the same for my teammates. We would train at the university, with other clubs, wherever we could. But it was a difficult period, we were all trying to find a way to play and hoping to play together again", explains Hitomi.

The General Manager of Mareeze did all he could to help his former players. In 2012, Vegalta Sendai, another team based in the Tohoku region, started a women’s section. They were looking for players and opened their doors to the Mareeze players. "I could have said no of course but there were two main reasons for me to accept : first of all I could play in my region, secondly I could play with my former teammates", says Ono who has been playing football as long as she remembers.

Hitomi is still at this club seven years later. The club started in the 2nd division but was quickly promoted to the Nadeshiko League. "At the beginning, it was challenging because some of the players had not played for months. We all had one objective in mind: getting promoted. We managed this and for us it was in fact the first time we could play in the Nadeshiko first division, as we did not have the opportunity to do so with Mareeze."

Hitomi Ono training in front of the goal with her club of Mynavi Vegalta Sendai Ladies

Vegalta Sendai have remained in the first division since, but have not won any trophies so far. This season has been even more difficult, as they had to fight against relegation. For Ono, one of the last players from the first days, the year has even been tougher.

"I had a knee injury in October 2017 so I didn’t play for almost a year. The team had pre-season camps and I could not participate and then the season started and I was not back, so that was quite hard to deal with. But some of my teammates had similar injuries, so we supported each other, and did rehab together", she explains.

And in 2 November this year, Vegalta had a crucial game against Jef United Ichihara. A win was necessary to stay in the Nadeshiko League Division 1. Hitomi was back for a few weeks and scored the 4th and decisive goal for her team.

Humble, Ono does not really want to take the credit for saving the club from relegation. "We could have avoided relegation earlier, but we did not manage it, and that’s why there was some drama in this game. We were talking before the game, telling each other that everybody had to contribute for the team with their own individual strength and skills, that’s how we would be successful. And that’s what I felt on the goal I have scored, that it was a team effort. But I was also very moved by the emotions of my teammates when I scored. I was injured for a long time, and they all came to me and congratulated me."

Hitomi has just turned 30, an age when some might start thinking of the end of a career. Her large smile and shiny eyes in fact express the opposite. "When I was injured, a lot of people told me they wanted me back on the pitch and since I have come back, so many people have congratulated me. That helped me understand that I wanted to continue playing. We still have the Empress Cup this year in which I hope we will be successful. I really want to win a trophy with this team."

One sure thing, Hitomi is tied to her club like few players are, for obvious reasons. "I can only be thankful to the club who gave us that chance to play. And to people in Sendai, who are really warm, welcoming and supporting. As one of the first members of this team, it is my responsibility to not forget how it all started, how the club was here for us. Every year there are new players and I have to tell them the story, it is important for them to understand how the team was founded and that they should not take things for granted."

"Something very important in the Japanese culture is the concept of 'Wa', which can be translated as 'harmony'. The principle is that members of a group - a football team in this case- prefer to ensure the harmony of the group over their personal interest. I think that explains the success of Japanese football. And that’s the values I want to transmit."

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