HIRONO, Fukushima - Many people in various fields have supported the national football team that will play in the upcoming FIFA World Cup in Brazil. Yoshiteru Nishi, 52, the team's exclusive chef, supports them from the kitchen.
Nishi runs a restaurant in J-Village, originally a sports training facility in the towns of Naraha and Hirono, Fukushima Prefecture, which has become a base for workers at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant since the 2011 disaster. Though the facility was once used as a training camp for the national football team, there is no such activity there now. Even so, Nishi is determined to support the team with utmost effort, believing that a good performance will encourage people in areas devastated by the disaster.
"Eat robustly and do your best!" Nishi's lively voice resounded through a restaurant in J-Village during lunch hour in early May. Most of the restaurant's patrons are workers at the nuclear power plant, about 20 kilometers north, as the facility is used for their accommodation. The establishment also houses offices handling matters related to the accident that occurred there.
Nishi, who hails from Odaka, a town that is now part of Minami-Soma in the prefecture, had thorough training at a Japanese restaurant in Tokyo. Since J-Village opened in 1997, Nishi has been a chef for the facility's restaurant. He also became the national team chef in March 2004.
He accompanied the national team overseas more than 50 times over the past 10 years, with the upcoming Brazil expedition being his third World Cup. At the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, where the national team made it to the best 16, some players thanked Nishi, saying that he had contributed greatly to the team's good performance. Nishi is the team's trusted chef.
His life changed drastically on March 11, 2011. After Nishi cleared up some lunch dishes, J-Village was rocked by strong earthquakes. The chef continued to prepare meals for people who took refuge at the facility without knowing if his family was safe. He moved to Tokyo several days later. When he returned to clear its kitchen two weeks later, he was absolutely appalled at what J-Village had become.
He saw workers lying on cardboard in the corridors as they silently ate their retort pouch meals. He was deeply preoccupied with the thought-"Is it really OK if I stay in Tokyo?"-and immediately responded to the facility's request for him to return in August the same year. He gave a prompt reply that he would like the workers to have warm meals as often as possible. About two months later, the restaurant became independent from the company running the facility.
In November that same year, Nishi opened his own restaurant near the facility with the sole purpose of helping restoration efforts in the area. His business struggled at first, since residents who had evacuated from the town did not return. But he managed to sustain his business by delivering boxed lunches.
During such hard times, Nishi was moved by the encouraging words of Takeshi Okada, 57, the former manager of the national team at the time of the World Cup in South Africa. After a game in which the team was defeated, Okada said to the players and staff: "Life is not always filled with good things. Bad things will surely come. When you face bad things, what's important is how you react to them. Always face the challenges!" Nishi has kept Okada's remarks in mind to this day.
Nishi's motto whenever he accompanies the national team is to "avoid mannerisms and cook as if you were cooking for the most important person." But his emotions as a member of the team run far deeper than his feelings as a chef. Nishi declared, "When the Japanese team wins, it makes me happier than being told my dishes are delicious."
The national team's World Cup camp is located in Itu, Brazil. About 100 kilometers away lies Sao Paulo, which is home to many Japanese-Brazilians. Nishi intends to procure most of the ingredients in the city, given the abundance of Japanese ingredients in the supermarkets. But there are difficulties in acquiring fish that the players favour, such as sablefish and mackerel. A few hundred kilograms of such fish will therefore be shipped from Japan by air, Nishi said. He brought rice harvested in Hirono to the team's camp in the United States before the team moved to Brazil.
In the 2011 disaster, he lost one of his close friends to tsunami, and one of his relatives died alone in evacuee housing. His parents are still living in provisional housing. Nishi said: "If the national team plays good games, I believe devastated areas will become lively once more, which will lead to their restoration. To make that happen, I'd like to fight alongside them in the kitchen and play an important supporting role for them." So pledged the "24th player," following the 23 members of the national team.