Local Initiatives2020 Venue
Miyagi business sows the seeds for Olympics field of dreams
A band of green stretches south along the coast of Sendai Bay from Yamamoto Town, Miyagi Prefecture. It’s a lush, 100-hectare oasis amid what was, a decade ago, a wasteland, and is something akin to northeastern Japan’s very own field of dreams.
Here, rippling gently in the breeze, can be found varieties of turf-grass, such as Kentucky Blue, Tifton and Japanese Zoysia, all cultivated under the trademark fukko shibafu (“regeneration turf”).
The land on which they are being grown is part of a development zone started in 2015 that stretches as far as Isohama Port, 10 km to the south.
It was formerly home to over 4,000 residential homes and agricultural and commercial quarters, of which little remained following the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, when mountainous tsunami waves pummeled coastal parts of the town, which lies 35 km south of the prefectural capital, Sendai. Around 640 residents lost their lives and thousands of homes were destroyed.
“It was a terrible sight, worse than a war zone,” says Seiichi Otsubo, 80, who conceived the “regeneration turf” idea and was born and raised in Yamamoto. “It wasn’t even a wasteland—just an expanse of sea where trees, houses, fields and businesses had once been. Not one landmark remained to indicate where my home and farmland had stood.”
Having moved to Sendai in the 1970s to start up Otsubo Sports—a sports goods and, later, leisure facilities maintenance company—none of Otsubo’s immediate family was affected, though several friends were among the disaster victims.
Once the waves had receded and Otsubo had located the land where, as a child, his family had grown grapes, he hit upon an idea. Keen to lend a hand in the region’s recovery, and realizing there would be a huge demand for turf in the area’s countless parks and sports grounds, he planted seeds to grow turf-grass.
“I planted them before the field had been cleared of water or even desalinated,” he recalls, adding that he was aware that the high salinity in the soil caused by the tsunami would have no detrimental effect on the grass providing it had plenty of uninterrupted sunlight – which the unimpeded wasteland provided. “It was an area of about 200 to 300 square meters and the grass took really well. … I had a dream to grow fukko shibafu, but never imagined how things would develop.”
In 2012 he registered the fukko shibafu trademark and a year later joined forces with five other local businesses, including turf grower Sendai Nurseries, to establish the company East Japan Reconstruction Lawn Growing Enterprises.
The following year the company made its first shipments, with initial orders including those for baseball parks in Sendai as well as levees along coastal parts that were being erected as safety measures amid the area’s reconstruction.
“It felt like a heifer I had been keeping had borne her first calf, which was healthy and was now being sent out into the wider world,” says Otsubo.
Four years later, and with 150,000 square meters of turf successfully grown, the company was shipping an altogether different kind of order that would indeed be seen around the globe, when it delivered 7,600 sq. meters of Japanese Zoysia to Toyota Stadium in Aichi Prefecture for use during the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
The order was particularly sweet for Otsubo, a rugby fanatic who played amateur rugby for Nissan Motor Corp., where he was employed after university, and continues to play in an over-40s team at the Sendai Yuwaku Rugby Football Club.
“I was invited to watch the opening fixture at Toyota Stadium. It was overwhelming to see our reconstruction turf in that arena and during such an historical event (the first Rugby World Cup in Asia). I wept with joy.”
That euphoria was multiplied when, months later, the company was commissioned to grow the turf to be used in another global event – the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
In yet another nod to its quality, Otsubo’s grass was chosen to returf Miyagi Stadium, which is located about 50 km north of Yamamoto and will host 10 men’s and women’s soccer games during the Games, which were postponed to 2021 following the coronavirus pandemic.
The turf grown especially for the stadium’s playing area is a composite of three varietals of Kentucky Blue Grass (KBG), among them “Granite KBG,” which is well-known for its year-round stability and durability under the severest conditions, says Kenji Oyama of Miyagi Prefecture’s Sports and Health Division, which oversees the stadium.
It also includes a KGB varietal called Sudden Impact, a dense grass that is extremely heat and drought tolerant – crucial during the hot summer months that the Games are scheduled to take place, he adds.
“As the Olympics is also being dubbed the ‘Recovery Olympics’ it seems fitting that the recovery turf should be used,” Oyama says. “We hope this will present an opportunity for global visitors to get to know Miyagi and the recovery efforts that have taken place.”
These include Yamamoto Town’s development zone where Otsubo’s recovery turf is being cultivated. That 603-hectare zone, which stretches south along the Pacific coast as far as the border with neighboring Fukushima Prefecture, is “one of a kind” in the disaster-affected Tohoku region, according to town official Kenji Sugawara. The fukko shibafu and other projects in that zone are considered “the highlight” of Yamamoto’s recovery projects, he adds.
Turf grower Otsubo says he still finds it “astonishing” that his seed of an idea should have grown into not just one, but two – and hopefully more – fields of dreams.
“Of course, you do have objectives and dreams to drive you on, to encourage you to give it your best shot,” he says. “But, as the Rugby World Cup and Olympics show, dreams can come true.”