How an earthquake and nuclear disaster led one player to the World Cup and NWSL

If you were to show up an hour early to an Angel City game and skip the very cool fanfest activities happening outside BMO Stadium, you could behold the vision that is Jun Endo juggling: the stadium still mainly empty, the pink-haired 22-year-old Japanese midfielder is alone on the field with headphones on, in communion with the ball. Sometimes she wears only socks.

She listens to whatever music she feels like in that moment, whether calm and slow or fast-paced and intense, and she takes one exquisite touch after another. She can juggle the ball thousands and thousands of times in a row, high and low, low and high, outside foot, inside foot, laces, shins. (She can juggle a golf ball. She can also juggle while jump-roping.) When the ball drops, it’s because she wants it to.

Watching her feels like witnessing something personal — a private relationship between ball and human. And you are: her extraordinary control is born out of extraordinary circumstances, each touch informed by her story.

On a rainy March morning in Santa Monica, California, Endo walked into Angel City headquarters, a building with a warehouse vibe, a reclaimed shiplap wall and triumphant photos. She wore a cornflower blue beanie, a black zip up sweatshirt, floral bike shorts and white high tops covered with a rainbow of Adidas trefoils — clothes that express her playfulness. In a conference room with a glass wall, she sat beside Saki Watanbe, a member of Angel City’s street outreach team who also translates for Endo.

She started at the beginning. Here’s how an earthquake, a nuclear disaster, a family’s love and enduring bravery created one of the most electric young players in the game.

Shirakawa, Fukushima, once a castle town on the border between civilization and the wilder Kanto region, has an old-timey, picturesque charm. It’s home to Nanko Park, the oldest park in all of Japan, where cherry blossom trees flourish along the rim of a lake. Endo and her family lived on a hillside, her parents’ low-slung, more modern house next door to her grandparents’ traditional Japanese wafuu home, with bamboo floors and kawara roof.

As the youngest of four kids — a sister and two brothers, all of whom played soccer — Endo learned to dribble when she learned how to walk. Her father’s a coach, and balls were everywhere. “Don’t play in the house” was never a rule. She played on a coed team, mostly boys, a few girls — no one paid much attention to gender. When her father was on the field, he was coach, but at home he was solely a dad. He never talked soccer. “At home, he always let me be free,” Endo says.

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As a family, freedom and expression are important. Her mother is a schoolteacher who she describes as bubbly, warm and colorful. Time at home had no set routine. Often, the kids played in the yard between the two houses and their dad never intervened, wanting them to know what it’s like to play on their own.

Some siblings occasionally allow their kid sister to win — “Not mine,” Endo says with a smile. They’d try to cheer her up when she lost — Jun, you are five and six years younger than us, of course you’re not going to win. She wasn’t consoled. Here Jun, her brother would say, offering the ball — come take a shot. She’d wipe her eyes and run over and right as she wound up to take a shot, her brother would yank it away — she’d trip and fall over and cry, all the more maddened.

Often after school, while her parents were at work, she hung with her grandmother. They went on walks together around Nanko Park. In spring, swans floated across the lake and the cherry blossoms were in full bloom. In November, the ginkgo trees turned a riot of yellow. In winter, snow blanketed the park. “We liked to look at the birds and the changing of the seasons,” Endo says. Her grandfather was more of a foreboding figure, stern, unsmiling, never one to issue a compliment directly. But when she won the races at school or scored a goal, he’d tell everyone: That’s my granddaughter. My granddaughter is incredible.

She was 11 when her life changed. The 9.1 magnitude earthquake struck during gym class. The boys were changing clothes in the classroom, the girls in the locker room. Everything shook, windows shattered, kids screamed, teachers screamed — “I could not handle the screaming,” Endo says.

She thought to herself, If we stay here, we’re going to die. Even though they’d been trained to get under a desk during an earthquake to take cover, Endo took off running down the hallway — she thought for some reason that everyone had forgotten about the girls. She was running to find someone to help them. When the six minutes of shaking ended, when everything finally went still, the teachers found her and consoled her: it’s OK Jun, all the girls are OK.

The students went outside into the open space. The playground was split open. No one could leave until their parent came to pick them up, but the roads were ruined and it took hours for families to show up. “It felt extremely long — I remember it getting colder and darker,” Endo says. Her father and brother, Wataru, came for her. Her brother ran to her and swept her up in his arms.

No one talked on their walk home. Jun sobbed. All the homes they passed had been destroyed, flattened into piles of rubble. Her home was on strong ground on the hillside — it was OK. But the surrounding wreckage was staggering and the news kept coming: the tsunami was hitting, walls of water triggering catastrophic meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. The death toll mounted — 18,500 people were gone. Endo thought to herself: this is the end.

The flooded reactors at the nuclear power plant released microscopic radioactive cesium and uranium particles into the air. Shirakawa was outside of the evacuation zone but harmful radiation and strict safety regulations meant they could not play outside for months. Endo missed the walks with her grandma to see the swans — but more than anything, she missed playing soccer.

She played by herself, at home, inside. She couldn’t hit long balls, make long runs into space or play freely on an open field — but she could juggle and she could dribble. The ball was the one thing she could control.

Gym space was coveted and precious when practices for her coed team began again — all the teams shared, small kids and big kids crammed together. Sometimes they played in hallways on tatami mats. She always loved to dribble — “It is still my favorite thing,” she says — but this period of her life, after the nuclear meltdown, she identifies as a starting point: there in the hallways and cramped spaces, she began to explore just what she could do with a ball at her feet. She made the most of the five or so meters of space that was hers, and it was in those confines that Endo shaped her identity as a player: a master of technique.

She and her teammates were only allowed to play outside by traveling hours by bus to nearby cities. The bus ride atmosphere was one of both excitement — they are going to get to play! — but also unease: players from outside the radiation zone treated Endo and her teammates like they were contaminated. More than 50 countries and regions banned the importation of food from Fukushima on the grounds that it might be radioactive, and kids from Fukushima were treated like they too might be radioactive.

“They treated me like I was a germ,” Endo says. During one-on-ones, the opposing defenders would recoil: “Don’t touch me,” they’d say, a memory burned into Endo. She never said anything in response — “I didn’t believe I could change how people saw me now,” she says.

“If that happened today, I’d be totally fine. I wouldn’t care,” Endo continues. “But as a kid, hearing that from someone else who’s the same age? I thought, I can’t continue. There’s no future for me.”

And then, a miracle: the 2011 Women’s World Cup. Just four months after the devastation of the triple disaster, the Japanese women’s national teamNadeshiko — pulled off one spectacular victory after another.

For the final against the United States, people across Japan set their alarms for the 3:45 a.m. kickoff. Endo watched the TV at home with her family — and when they beat the USA on penalties and became the first Asian country to win the World Cup, she was shaking. Midfielder Aya Sameshima had even worked at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant during the disaster.

“Watching these players, who experienced the same earthquake, the same struggles, play in the World Cup, made me think, I can do this too,” Endo says. She told herself: one day I will be on that pitch.

At 12 years old, she left home to attend a prestigious football academy, JFA Academy Fukushima LSC.

“When I was packing, I was super duper excited, thinking I can’t wait … but when I got there, as soon as I was about to fall asleep, that’s when I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I miss home,’ ” Endo says. The strict rules and hierarchies of the academy were a world apart from a childhood that had been all freedom, no routine. On the phone, Endo cried. Sometimes she said: “This is too much. I don’t want to do this anymore. I want to quit,” and no matter which family member she was talking with — mom, dad, sister, grandma — their response was always the same: in a soothing voice, they’d say, “OK, quit. Come home.”

“And then I’d be like, ‘No, I don’t want to,’ ” she says now with a laugh. “It sparked a fire in me.”

As a sixth-grader, she was asked to play up with the high schoolers — it was difficult but she loved proving herself against the older kids. Her mother, the one who knows her best, can tell when she’s doubting herself, usually because she’s comparing herself to others. She’s the steady voice in Endo’s ear, saying, “Jun, you are yourself — be Jun, be yourself.”

By the time she was finishing high school, Endo was playing for Nippon TV Beleza in the Japanese WE league, and at 19 she was the youngest member of the 2019 Japanese World Cup team. In July 2021 she played in her first Olympics. The Nadeshiko failed to advance out of group, losing to England and tying eventual champ Canada. Afterwards, she visited the memorial for her grandpa, who had passed on earlier that year. She put her ball on his grave and talked to him: even though it didn’t go as we planned, I hope you would be proud.

She was fresh off Olympic disappointment when her agent called: a new NWSL team in America, founded by female superstars — the likes of Natalie Portman, Serena Williams and Abby Wambach — wants her to play for them. Endo was immediately interested.

“I felt like I had plateaued and I wanted a new environment to take me to another level,” Endo says.

Angel City FC manager Freya Coombe describes their recruiting criteria: “If you can’t cover ground quickly, you’re unable to make it in this league. We looked at her data, her athleticism and saw how technical and quick she was. There was also a willingness to be brave and experience American culture — to have an adventure.”

At 22-years-old, Endo followed her dream to the other side of the world. She came to the United States alone, and she cried on the plane because she was so anxious. She felt proud of herself when she made it through customs — she’d been scared she wouldn’t be able to answer the questions. She speaks no English.

The first week of Angel City’s preseason, a weeklong camp, she was a duckling: whenever she saw her roommate change into practice gear, she’d change into it. During mealtimes, when someone stood up, she thought, the meal must be over, time to stand up too. Because she understood nothing, she observed everyone, watching closely, paying attention.

“A teammate said, ‘Jun, why are you looking at me so much?’ And I was like, ‘Uh, I’m just trying to figure it all out,’ ” Endo laughs. They rely on Google translate to communicate, passing back and forth the phone. She has learned one joke in English — when they ask her “What’s up?” she responds, “The sky.” (Her friends groan, like, who taught you that?)

On the field she is playful, but also fierce. For all her infinite patience while juggling, come game time there’s a directness, an urgency. Three minutes into last year’s opener against the North Carolina Courage, in front of a sellout crowd of 22,000 fans, she chased down the ball near the end line, cut it back with a simplicity that made the charging defender look foolish and sent in the cross to set up Angel City’s first goal in history. Ten minutes later, she scored the game winner — tearing down the field with as few touches as possible, slotting it side netting. “She’s been a fan favorite ever since,” Coombe says.

In 2023, she has continued to thrill. Playing for Japan during the SheBelieves Cup in March, she nutmegged Canada’s Kadeisha Buchanan in the box with fanatic, I-will-go-through-you energy, drawing a penalty kick that Japan converted. In the 77th minute, she charged through open spaces and scored one on her own. She is playing the best soccer of her life.

Coombe recounts a moment during preseason when, post-practice, Endo was laying on top of one of the inflatable dummies used in training sessions for free kicks. She tried to balance herself on the cylinder-shaped object — she rolled and fell off, got back on, rolled and fell off, got back on, determined — no idea that a practice camera happened to be recording it all. The coaching staff edited the video footage to music and played it for the team: Endo, fully absorbed in this challenge she’d made for herself.

“She’s a creative spirit and I don’t want to be a joystick coach — now go here, go there — I want her to be able to operate with a little freedom, to explore the space,” Coombe says. “Her teammates are starting to understand her and the movement — we’re finding the rhythm.”

Before last season’s opener, Endo remembers walking out onto the field. “I knew that no one in this stadium knew who I was,” Endo says. But she made a vow to herself: I’m going to leave an impression. I will make sure everyone remembers me.

At this season’s home opener on March 26, Endo stepped on the field and the 22,000 in the sellout crowd roared. She had undoubtedly become a fan favorite — if not the fan favorite. Men and women scattered throughout the stadium wear pink wigs in her honor. She didn’t disappoint, although the same could not be said for VAR: in the 15th minute, she rocketed through the midfield and launched a stunner from 40 yards out, catching the keeper off her line — it was goal-of-the-year caliber stuff.

Endo grinned and hopped while her teammates pounced on her. Thousands of fans wildly waved pink Angel City flags — until VAR put a stop to the jubilation. No one in the stadium had any idea why, and the broadcasters watching video of it were just as puzzled — nothing was clear in the replay, although eventually it was declared that Angel City teammate Dani Weatherholt committed a foul in the buildup. The goal was called back. As Angel City supporters booed the decision, Endo walked the field, eyes sparkling, lips pursed.

On Instagram, she posted video of the whole sequence — her ridiculous goal, the joyful hopping, the ref making the ominous VAR sign with his fingers, followed by the dismaying, no-goal gesture of his arms. Almost assuredly using Google Translate, Endo wrote, “Where is my score?!” and she tracked the progression of her facial expressions through a series of emoticons, from the ultimate happy face all the way down to distraught.

Then she vowed: “I’ll get this score back,” as if to say: one day, I will score this beauty again. The post captures the traits that make her Jun: she is spirited, playful — and undeterred. Come July, the kid from Fukushima will get the chance to represent her country in the 2023 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. She will no doubt be making more vows to herself — to win a World Cup and to dazzle the way the Nadeshiko once dazzled her.


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