Yoko Tanaka and the 150,000 paper cranes
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To mark the end of the FIFA U20 Women’s World Cup 2012 Japan on Saturday, some 150,000 folded paper cranes will go on display at the National Stadium in Tokyo. The cranes form part of the Legacy Programme initiated and arranged by the Local Organising Committee and the Japan Football Association (JFA) with close support from FIFA.

In Japanese culture, paper cranes have special meaning for their makers, who place a wish into their craftwork as they fold each piece of Origami paper. Saturday's paper cranes are no different. Those who gathered at the five venues across the country made special wishes into each one of them as they folded the paper. Hikari Kanazawa, first-year student at Tokai University, one of the volunteers at the national stadium, said “I was the manager of my high school football team and I used to make paper cranes wishing those injured in the team to get well soon.”

Saki Mizutani, who is also in her first year in the university and volunteered on the day, added “Of course, recovery from the Tohoku Earthquake is still ongoing. But through sports I hope there are some positives that will cheer up those affected by the tragic events. I hope that the people in the affected area and our country itself will get through these tough times, like cranes flying into the beautiful sky.” At Tokai University, students were working throughout the night and there were 6,500 paper cranes made by the following morning.

Overcoming disaster
One player who understands more than most the significance of the paper cranes is Yoko Tanaka. Speaking to FIFA.com, the Young Nadeshiko appreciated the fans' gesture, saying “a lot of paper cranes have been folded all over the country”. Tanaka was one of the first graduates of the JFA Academy Fukushima after it was founded in 2006. She therefore spent her junior high and high school days in Fukushima prefecture, which was one of the region's most affected by the earthquake. On 11 March 2011, at the time of the disaster, Tanaka was in Russia.

“I did not know what was happening as I was abroad at the time of the quake. But I started receiving emails on my mobile and then realised (how bad the situation was). In the town where the academy is, local people apparently came to the assembly hall, where the players were evacuated, and made rice balls for them. In Fukushima, the locals are such nice people and they are extremely warm-hearted; these are the people who supported us.”

After the disaster, it was decided that the JFA Academy Fukushima had to be moved to somewhere else due to the damage caused to Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Restriction orders mean that people are prohibited from entering the affected areas. Tanaka was forced to go home and it was only two months later the academy staff managed to bring her belongings to her. In the end, the academy was moved to Shizuoka prefecture. Tanaka graduated her high school last March and joined INAC Kobe Leonessa in the Nadeshiko League. However, the warmth of Fukushima is still in the U-20 Women’s World Cup star’s heart.

“When I first started out at the academy, I used to get told off all the time. I am a laid-back person and pretty forgetful as well. Quite a few people got mad at me during my time there. But thanks to that place, I was able to develop. When I joined the academy I did not read at all but now there are so many books at home as I read a lot nowadays. I would love to go back there to help them with whatever I can. But (due to the restriction orders) I cannot go back and I get upset about it. So what I can do to repay them is to play my very best on this big stage. There may be people seeing me play who might feel something. I believe that is the case. We also played in Miyagi, which was also devastated by the earthquake and thought that the best thing we could do is try our hardest.”

Tanaka is strong willed and that is reflected in her playing style. After losing to Germany by 3-0, she was the one comforting team-mates who were crying their eyes out. “Some of the girls were blaming themselves for the way we lost the game. But if you looked at the match closely, the reason we could not do anything was because we let them score three goals in the early stage of the match. If we forget the first 20 minutes, we may feel a lot different about the entire game. It was definitely not a fault made by one player and there is still the third place play-off to go for. We could still get bronze.

"We are so grateful that we have been given the opportunity to play in our home country and that so many people are supporting us throughout the tournament. The most important thing for us is to show our appreciation by playing our best football. There is only one game left. So I hope we can give it our all.”

There is one particular memory from her junior high school days that is stuck in Tanaka‘s mind. “I was on my bike going to school and there was this lady who said to me: ’Thank you for greeting me every morning. You always train hard and good luck!’ And then she gave me an orange. People of Fukushima were very warm and welcoming towards the academy students even though we were outsiders.”