TOKYO Overseas athletes plying their trade in Japanese sports leagues were starting to leave the country as it battled to avert nuclear disaster on Thursday, local media reported.
Last Friday's catastrophic 9.0 magnitude quake and tsunami that followed claimed thousands of lives and crippled a nuclear plant 240 kms north of the capital Tokyo, sparking fears of health risks from radiation leaks.
With the country struggling to deal with what Japanese Emperor Akihito described as a crisis "unprecedented in scale," professional sport in the country has largely come to a standstill.
Five American baseball players playing for the Yokohama BayStars were all due to depart for the United States on Thursday, although officials said they would return next week.
"These guys have rarely experienced earthquakes," Yokohama manager Takao Obana told Kyodo news agency. "It's understandable that they want to go home."
The Kyodo report said foreign players at the Seibu Lions club, who are based in a commuter city west of Tokyo, had been refused permission to leave the country as there was no threat to their health.
Nippon Professional Baseball has yet to announce whether the new season would begin on March 25 as scheduled.
Basketball's bj-league, where foreigners make up a third of the players, canceled all fixtures last weekend and officials have not decided when the season will be resumed.
Several members of the Tokyo Apaches team were also heading back home to the U.S., and not just because of fears for their own safety.
"It is a very difficult time right now as I am having mixed emotions about leaving," American Darin Satoshi Maki, a point guard for the Tokyo Apache told the Japan Times.
"Avoiding conflicting reports, blackouts, supply shortages, transportation issues and aftershocks altogether might be best. Plus all I am doing here is consuming food and electricity.
"I will be leaving for Los Angeles on Thursday and I know my family will be relieved to see me, but if I get the call that our season is starting up again, I will be on the first thing smoking."
Australian soccer international Jade North, who had just signed a deal to play for FC Tokyo when the earthquake struck, was instructed by his J.League club to leave the country and return home on Wednesday.
"So far they've canceled all of the March fixtures in the J.League and no one knows what'll happen then," the defender told the Adelaide Advertiser.
"But I've had a great time before the earthquake struck. It's a really good club and I want to come back once things have started to calm down."
The Japan Football Association on Wednesday canceled an international friendly against Montenegro scheduled to take place in Shizuoka on March 25 but are still hopeful the Asian champions will take on New Zealand in Tokyo on March 29.
If the New Zealanders decide against traveling, a charity match against a local team will be played instead.
National team coach Alberto Zaccheroni returned home to Italy with his four assistants after the earthquake but has pledged to be back in Japan for the match.
"We see this charity match as a gesture and want it to be the first step to aid the recovery of the victims," he said in a statement.
Japan's national swimming championships, a trial for the world championships and scheduled to take place in Tokyo in early April, was the latest event to be canceled the venue was damaged by the earthquake, Kyodo reported.
(Reporting by Nick Mulvenney in Sydney, editing by Greg Stutchbury)