When you think of rugby-playing countries, you might first picture the fearsome Kiwis performing the Māori haka dance, or tough showdowns between the constituent nations of the UK. For most, the baseball-loving nation of Japan would be among the last to come to mind.
However, if you’ve been paying any attention to international rugby union in recent years, you’ll be well aware that times are-a changing; many Japanese people have been in the grip of rugby fever for a while now, which reached new heights in 2019 when the Rugby World Cup was held here. Despite their underdog status, the national team managed to dish out devastating defeats to both Wales and Scotland, victories surpassed only by their surprise thumping of South Africa four years prior.
Rugby union in Japan seems to be going strength to strength, chiseling out for itself a respectable chunk of the cultural landscape of Japan. Let’s look at how this English sport came to the East, and how it has ended up competing against soccer and baseball for the hearts and minds of Japan’s athletic youth.
The Early Days
Like curry rice and railroads, rugby first came to Japan thanks to the efforts of Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry, whose gunboat diplomacy forced an end to Japan’s strict isolationist policies in 1854. Now the trading ports of Japan were alive with new inventions and ideas from the West, one of them being a rough new form of football which had been invented at Rugby Boarding School in England several decades before.
Asia’s first rugby club was Yokohama Football Club: an organization established in the late 1860s by British and Irish military sailors and merchants based in the city, with a few locals joining in as the years went on. It was managed in tandem with the local cricket club, which gained greater fame in those days. In 19th-century Japan, rugby wasn’t exactly the phenomenon which it has become today, with scant newspaper coverage to prove it was even played here at all.
It wasn’t until 1899, when English teacher Edward Bramwell Clarke taught the rules of rugby to some of his students in the Keio University economics department, that rugby started to catch on among the locals themselves. The Keio team developed something of a rivalry with the expats of Yokohama Country Club, first being thrashed by them 35-5 in 1901, then coming back for a 12-0 win in 1908.
Waseda University followed suit in forming their own team, and the two universities met for their first match in 1922. Waseda and Keio became good enough over the following decade to dish out defeats to a team of Australian university students who toured the country in 1934. To this day these sides remain two of the most prestigious university teams in Japan.
Despite active opposition to all things foreign during the height of Japan’s pre-WW2 ultranationalism, the sport wasn’t snubbed out entirely due in part to the royal family’s personal love of the sport; the royal Price Chichibu had been head of the Japan Rugby Football Association since its founding in 1926, after all. After the war, the same prince dedicated his efforts to the promotion of sport in Japan, with the formation of more university rugby clubs, and the amateur club leagues, as part of that agenda.
The Japanese National Team
Rugby has come on leaps and bounds since those early days, but there’s still a ways to go. The most visible achievements of modern Japanese rugby have occurred within the past 5 years, thanks to the glorious overachievement of the national side: the Brave Blossoms — a moniker which references the sakura cherry blossom crest which adorns their uniforms. The team was founded in 1932, and from the 70s onwards they comfortably dominated the Asian championships.
Despite participating in every Rugby World Cup since the tournament’s inception in 1987, the Blossoms failed to make any real mark on the world stage until 2015. Then, during the World Cup in England, they dealt a surprise 34-32 defeat to South Africa. This caused a huge spike in interest back in the homeland, but the JRFA was unfortunately slow to capitalize on the hype.
They got a second chance in 2019, however, when the Rugby World Cup came to Japan’s shores. As someone who worked as an English conversation teacher at the time, I can confirm that literally everyone in Japan seemed to be rugby-mad for those two weeks. The national team managed to justify the hype with some stunning upsets against both Scotland and Wales.
The 2019 world cup was a time of firsts for Japan, and Asian rugby in general. Unfortunately, the Blossoms were snubbed in the semis by South Africa, but nobody could have any complaints with them making it that far. Along the way, they drove the sale of over 250,000 replica jerseys and likely turned a new generation of kids onto the game. World Rugby also elected to raise Japan up to the ranks of tier 1 rugby nations earlier in 2020, on the back of this outstanding campaign.
Why they did so is no mystery; Japan has gained a reputation as a top tactical force with more than a few slick tricks up their sleeves. As many pundits are quick to point out, the difference in physicality between Japan and teams such as New Zealand is notable, so the Brave Blossoms have had to develop their own style of highly tactical, inventive, and attractive play.
Although the hype of the World Cup has largely died down in Japan, it seems the authorities have learned their lesson, with a fresh range of initiatives to get young kids playing the game. Japanese rugby has also won the backing of media heavyweight Nihon TV, who are believed to be planning to establish a fully-fledged Japanese professional league.
Japanese Club Rugby
We’ve seen that the academic sports system is a key part of rugby in Japan (the country’s high school rugby competition is entered by over 800 teams annually), but the other side is the corporate world. The rugby clubs in Japan are all owned by corporations, which has given the league a reputation for high salaries. Much like the soccer teams of China, corporate owners are splashing the cash to bring in big international names, often towards the end of their career, to boost the profile of their clubs.
Top names might find their eyes drawn Eastwards by lucrative offers from teams such as NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes, Suntory Sungoliath, or the Panasonic Wild Knights. For purists who believe sport should belong to the people, these corporate monikers might make Japanese rugby sound like a dystopic nightmare, but it’s basically the way things are done across all top-tier sport in the country.
However, only a small number of the players on these teams are fully professional, with most holding a full-time job alongside their playing career. In fact, they often work for the corporations who run the teams. The big salaries are reserved for a few select local stars, and the big-name foreigners. The league’s comparatively average players can’t expect to make their millions through rugby alone.
For example, New Zealander Dan Carter — world player of the year on three separate occasions — joined then Kobelco Steelers for a reported $165,000 per month. Soccer fans may not be blown away by that figure, but it’s way beyond what players in even the top rugby nations around the world can hope to receive.
The Japanese Top League is one of the newest rugby leagues in the world, dating back only to 2003. It was founded in an attempt to boost and formalize the sport in the country, and it certainly also succeeded in producing some exciting fixtures, but there’s still much room for improvement: match attendances are low, and TV coverage is rare. If Nihon TV are able to go ahead with their plan of founding a fully professional league, which can provide full time salaries for all of its players, then perhaps we’ll be looking at a very different kind of top-flight Japanese rugby within the next decade.
It remains to be seen whether the great wave of rugby fandom from 2019 will catapult the sport to a top spot in Japanese sporting culture, or whether the untimely advent of the age of COVID-19 will disrupt the flow entirely. As it stands, rugby is fifth in terms of popularity, trailing behind baseball, soccer, basketball, and volleyball. If anything, that fact makes it absolutely unbelievable that Japan has managed to achieve so much at the national level thus far.
It could be easily argued, however, that the sport is currently gaining fresh yards more than any other in Japan — in the process of changing from a fringe, foreign thing, into a common national pastime. At this rate, perhaps the sport’s favorite giant-slayers won’t remain the underdog for very long.