SOMA, JAPAN (Reuters) - The pale, glistening bodies of two mammoth sumo wrestlers slammed together amid piles of wreckage, charred boats in the background, in this Japanese port district, eerily silent after many residents died in the March earthquake and tsunami.
A loud thud broke the silence and the victorious wrestler lifted his sweat-drenched body as the scorching summer sun rose out of the ocean at a summer training camp in an oceanside area of Soma, devastated by the March 11 disaster.
The wrestlers wanted both to give back to the community, some 270 km northeast of Tokyo, that has hosted their summer training for 20 years -- and also redeem their ancient sport, tainted by recent scandals.
“I‘m still scared of aftershocks, but I want to fight my heart out for my family and make people in Soma smile again,” said winning wrestler Oazuma, 21, wiping his wide forehead.
A metal roof was the only thing left of the sumo summer gym, or “stable,” after the massive 9.0 quake triggered a tsunami that left parts of Soma a pile of rubble and set off the world’s worst nuclear crisis in 25 years at a nuclear plant just 50 km away.
Some 80,000 have been forced to leave their homes near the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, which continues to leak radiation -- including the family of wrestler Oazuma.
“My dad and mum lost their jobs, and although I‘m just a sumo beginner I ended up as the sole family breadwinner,” he added, noting that his family remains in temporary housing.
Having the wrestlers return as if it was any other summer is seen by many as a vital step to lift morale as survivors make fragile attempts to rebuild their shattered lives.
“We live in the shadow of Fukushima. Many people have already left this area, others are pondering such a move,” said Hiroko Mori, 29, as she cheered on the wrestlers with her daughter asleep in a pram beside her despite the heat.
“I love sumo and come to see them practice here every year. It’s great to have them back,” added Mori.
Between the stable and the shore the land was unnaturally flat, with weeds growing amid shattered house foundations and bald cement slabs. Some 460 residents and over a thousand houses were swept away throughout Soma -- with around 20,400 dead or missing across Japan.
“Mori is right. Our wrestlers are like ‘Nadeshiko Japan’,” shouted a pensioner in his seventies, referring to women’s soccer team that became a nation-wide sensation and gave the country a sense of unity after winning the World Cup in July.
Stable founder Hayao Shiga, himself a former sumo wrestler, said he stared in shock at satellite photos of the area -- a vast stretch of nothing but debris -- just after the disaster.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes, but as soon as I saw the metal roof of the stable still there I thought we can return to Soma, pick up the pieces and start all over again,” he added.
Sumo training is steeped in tradition and due to its ties to Japan’s ancient Shinto religion, some aspects -- such as throwing salt to the earthen ring for purification -- take on a ritual flavor. Wrestlers build strength through primitive methods such as lifting stone and pushing against each other.
“Faster, faster! Hold the body lower, or you’ll get pushed out immediately!” shouted the former stable master as the wrestlers threw their bodies against each other.
But rebuilding is far from an easy task, with sumo as a whole at a critical make-or-break point on top of everything Shiga’s stable faces.
The sport, already struggling with a declining fan base as young people desert it for baseball or soccer, was hit by a corrosive succession of scandals including match-fixing, drugs and drink, and the hazing death of a trainee.
“As our sport slowly licks its wounds, we want the people here to carry on fighting with us,” said Yukihiro Kimura, a sumo referee, as around him wrestlers energetically shared their post-training breakfast with local residents.
In another show of support for the area, which has taken an economic hit with the shipment of many agricultural products banned due to radioactive contamination, the traditional “chanko” stew was filled with local radishes and Chinese cabbage, which the wrestlers devoured.
“I traveled through the quake-affected areas with other wrestlers and one thing was true time and again,” Kimura said.
“We were there to cheer up the survivors, but their resilience and determination to carry on against all odds ended up inspiring us.”
Editing by Elaine Lies