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TOKYO: Jun Endo wasn’t allowed to play football outside after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster because of radiation fears, so she honed her dribbling skills in a cramped indoor hall instead.

Japan’s Women’s World Cup win that year inspired her to keep going and now the forward is carrying her country’s hopes into this month’s tournament in Australia and New Zealand.

“I couldn’t play football because of the effects of the disaster, but just when I was thinking of quitting, Japan won the World Cup,” the 23-year-old told AFP.

“I watched that and I strongly felt that I wanted to be standing in that position one day too.”

Endo grew up about 100 kilometres (60 miles) from Fukushima’s Daiichi nuclear plant and was 10 years old when the deadly tsunami overwhelmed its cooling systems, triggering a meltdown.

About 165,000 people fled their homes in the area, either voluntarily or under evacuation orders, in the worst nuclear catastrophe since Chernobyl.

Endo’s family lived outside the evacuation zone and stayed put, but radiation regulations at her school meant outdoor play was strictly limited for months after the disaster.

Endo had to share the same small indoor hall with the other kids but she says it had “a good impact” on her control of a football.

“I liked dribbling before then but I began to like it even more during that time,” she said.

“My technique developed a lot and in terms of what came out of it, it was really good.”

Endo says it was difficult to deal with the loss of freedom and she thought about giving up football.

Rare visits to other parts of Japan to play games brought relief but also pain – she and her team-mates faced discrimination from opposing players who treated them like they were radioactive.

“People would say nasty things to us when we were away on football tours,” she said.

“Then there were people who didn’t want to eat or buy things that were grown in Fukushima and had the name Fukushima on them.”

‘Turning point’

A moment of respite came when Japan upset the odds to win the Women’s World Cup in Germany that summer, beating the United States in the final to become national heroes.

Endo recalls getting up in the middle of the night to watch the match with her parents and three siblings, describing it as “a turning point” in her life.

“I had felt the fun going out of football, so to see players doing what I wanted to do – winning the World Cup – it had a really positive impact on me,” she said. “It gave me strength.”

Endo now plays her club football for Angel City FC in the United States, having left Japan’s domestic league at the end of 2021.

She has become a key figure for her country, after appearing in three of Japan’s four games at the 2019 World Cup as the squad’s youngest player.

They have been drawn in Group C alongside Spain, Zambia and Costa Rica for this year’s tournament.

Deep connection

Endo concedes that it will be tough to reclaim the title but she is hoping to inspire a new generation in the same way that she drew hope from the 2011 team.

“There’s not much difference from 2011 – if we win then women’s football will get more attention,” she said. “More kids will want to become football players. It’s important to win the title.”

Japan’s World Cup crown was credited with lifting the nation’s spirits and the team’s connection to the Fukushima area was a deep one.

They often used the Japan Football Association’s J-Village training centre there and two of the players even worked at the nuclear plant before the meltdown.

Endo’s roots are also tangled up with the disaster but she says she has no intention of running away from it.

“I have nothing but bad memories from the disaster, but it’s precisely because it happened that I kept playing,” she said.

“I try to take it as a positive.”

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