Japan's Michael Leitch catches the ball in a lineout during a rugby match between England and Japan at Twickenham Stadium in London in November 2018. AP
World Cup puts Japanese rugby back in the spotlight
The date is June 4, 1995, and the Japan national rugby team is facing New Zealand’s mighty All Blacks in its final pool game at the Rugby World Cup in South Africa. Japan, which has already been eliminated from the tournament going into the match at Bloemfontein’s Free State Stadium, has conceded an early try but a scrum on the New Zealand 22-yard line gives the Brave Blossoms a chance to level the score.
Japan No. 8 Sinali Latu picks up the ball and passes it to scrumhalf Wataru Murata, who darts toward the New Zealand line and tries to pass to winger Yoshihito Yoshida. Yoshida has a clear run to the line if he can receive the ball, but New Zealand winger Jeff Wilson shoots out a hand to block the pass and the All Blacks are able to halt the attack.
What happens next enters the annals of Rugby World Cup history, but not in the way Japan would have hoped for. The All Blacks score 21 tries on the way to a 145-17 win, racking up the competition’s biggest-ever points total in a single match. The record still stands to this day.
“It was like a nightmare,” Murata says 24 years later, as Japan prepares to host the 2019 Rugby World Cup starting this month. “The color began to drain from my vision and I could only see in black and white. My head began to hurt.
“Then, before I knew it, the game was over,” he says. “My mind was completely blank even though I had just played the full 80 minutes. I had no memory of the game. Afterward, I thought there was no way we could go back to Japan.”
The Japan team can expect a much warmer welcome when it walks out at Tokyo Stadium on Sept. 20 to face Russia in the opening match of this year’s Rugby World Cup, which will be held in an Asian country for the first time.
The decision to award Japan hosting rights was made more than 10 years ago, on July 28, 2009, but the country’s rugby fans have been waiting much longer to play such a major role on the international scene.
History in the making: An illustration published in April 1874 in The Graphic magazine depicts "a foot-ball match between Englishmen and Scotchmen near the city of Yokohama in Japan." COURTESY OF MIKE GALBRAITH
Japan has a rich rugby history, with the country’s first recorded team — Yokohama Foot Ball Club — coming into existence in 1866. According to international governing body World Rugby’s official figures for 2018, Japan had a total of 295,939 players, which was more than any country in the world apart from England, the United States, South Africa, France and Australia.
For all that tradition and involvement, however, rugby in Japan has always struggled to escape the shadow of other sports. Baseball, soccer and sumo have consistently hogged the headlines, relegating rugby to minor-sport status alongside the likes of basketball, volleyball and wrestling.
At certain times over the years, though, rugby has captured the public’s attention in a big way.
The growth of the game in Japan owes no small debt to the nation’s universities, which began to establish their own rugby teams in the early 20th century. Fierce rivalries between schools developed, with matches between Waseda University, Keio University and Meiji University, in particular, taking on huge importance for the participants.
The All-Japan University Rugby Championship was established in 1964 to crown a national champion, with qualifiers coming from the regional leagues that pitted historic rival schools against each other. By the 1980s, these college matches had reached epic proportions.
On Dec. 5, 1982, Waseda played Meiji at Tokyo’s National Stadium in a Kanto regional qualifier for the All-Japan tournament. The two teams had played in front of a packed house at the same venue in the previous year’s All-Japan final, but it was the 1982 match that really went down in legend.
A crowd of 66,999 fans — the third-highest attendance at National Stadium ever, following the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics — watched the match, with hundreds of thousands more denied entrance after a ticket lottery was organized to manage the huge demand. For the players on the field, the atmosphere was unlike anything they had ever experienced.
“When we came out onto the pitch, the noise from the crowd came down in waves,” says Manabu Matsuse, who played in the game as a prop for Waseda. “With all the noise and the atmosphere, I felt like I was a big star coming out onto a grand stage. Of course, the crowd wasn’t there just to see me, but playing there was like a dream.
“The seats at the stadium used to be unreserved, so in order to get a good one, fans had to line up all around the stadium,” he says. “The stadium was completely surrounded from the night before the game. People were passionate about those games in a way that just doesn’t exist nowadays.”
Waseda won the 1982 match and also that year’s Kanto regional title, but went on to lose to Meiji in the semifinals of the All-Japan championship. For the players, claiming bragging rights over their biggest rivals was more important than winning trophies.
“If you could play in a game like Waseda vs. Meiji, you felt like you could die afterward and you wouldn’t mind,” says Matsuse, who went on to become a journalist and has covered every Rugby World Cup since the inaugural tournament in 1987. “The target was to play in the Waseda-Meiji game. After that, the All-Japan tournament was just a bonus.”
College games between Waseda University and Meiji University attracted tens of thousands to National Stadium during their 1980s heyday. KYODO
Universities have not been the only hotbed of Japanese rugby over the years. The high school game also has a long history, and the National High School Rugby Tournament has drawn big crowds to Hanazono Rugby Stadium in the eastern Osaka suburb of Higashiosaka since it began in 1917.
The competition — and Japanese rugby as a whole — was given an unexpected boost in October 1984 when a new TV drama series called “School Wars” appeared on TBS. The show was based on the true story of Yoshiharu Yamaguchi, a teacher and former Japan international rugby player who took over the rugby team of a rough high school in Kyoto and molded a team full of delinquents into national champions.
“School Wars,” which starred Shinji Yamashita as the coach and Yuki Matsumura as a notorious troublemaker who learns discipline and teamwork through rugby, was a runaway success. It introduced viewers to a sport many had never seen before, and even inspired future national team players to lace up a pair of boots for the first time.
“(Incumbent Japan scrumhalf) Fumiaki Tanaka says his favorite phrase is ‘belief becomes power,’ which was what the coach in the show used to say to the players,” Matsumura says. “Tanaka wasn’t even old enough to watch the show the first time round but he watched it later on reruns. That makes me very proud.
“I didn’t expect the show to be as popular as it was,” Matsumura says. “There were lots of great lines in the show, like ‘belief becomes power’ and ‘love is believing, waiting and forgiving.’ These are things that you don’t hear in everyday life, so I think that really resonated with people.”
“School Wars” aired every Saturday night for 26 episodes from Oct. 6, 1984, to April 6, 1985, and spawned a 1990 follow-up series and a 2004 movie.
Matsumura’s performance helped launch him to nationwide stardom, but he admits the nuances of the sport were difficult to get to grips with at first.
“I knew almost nothing about rugby,” he says. “I had no experience. When everyone got together before we started filming, they gave us a lecture about rugby. Then, when we were actually filming, we had someone to point us in the right direction. You never know where a ball that shape is going to bounce. That was the first thing that I couldn’t get my head around. And on top of that, you can only pass the ball backward. I didn’t know that rule. Everything was new to me but it was fun.
“You could say that the show would have worked with other sports, but rugby has 15 players on each team, which makes it a team sport with the most players,” he says. “It’s a sport that anyone can play, whether you’re short, tall, big or small, so teamwork is important. Because of that, phrases like ‘belief becomes power’ or ‘love is believing, waiting and forgiving’ work especially well.”
Former scrumhalf Murata, who played in Japan’s fateful defeat to New Zealand at the 1995 Rugby World Cup, was also a fan of “School Wars.” He says it helped his schoolmates understand what he was doing when he was away playing rugby all the time.
Murata’s dedication eventually paid off when he made his debut for Japan in the buildup to the 1991 Rugby World Cup, and he found himself in the starting lineup for his team’s opening game of the tournament against Scotland at Edinburgh’s Murrayfield Stadium. Japan lost and also tasted defeat in its next outing against Ireland, but a 52-8 thrashing of Zimbabwe in the Brave Blossoms’ final match gave them their first-ever Rugby World Cup win.
Back home, however, the reaction was largely muted. Rugby fans were thrilled but the wider public barely knew that the Rugby World Cup, which was only being played for the second time, even existed.
Record humiliation against the All Blacks four years later in South Africa made much more of a splash.
“There was some interest in the game before it started, but as soon as it was over, it got a lot of attention,” says Murata, who played at three Rugby World Cups. “We had suffered the biggest defeat ever, and that became big news in Japan. People were very standoffish toward us. They would say well done and they would be smiling, but their eyes wouldn’t be smiling.”
Newspapers revel in Japan’s victory over the Springboks at Brighton, England, during the 2015 Rugby World Cup. KYODO
It would be another 20 years before the Rugby World Cup would really register in Japan. And when it did, it became a national sensation.
Japan’s 34-32 win over South Africa at the 2015 tournament in England wasn’t even shown live on public TV back home. When the nation woke up to discover that its national rugby team had pulled off one of the biggest shocks in sporting history, however, TV executives soon sat up and took notice.
Japanese viewers went on to set a new Rugby World Cup record with 25 million watching the team’s subsequent 26-5 win over Samoa, while the cumulative audience across the country increased by 59 million from the previous tournament in New Zealand.
Rugby fever swept Japan. Meanwhile, over in England, Brave Blossoms head coach Eddie Jones was struggling to protect his players from a mounting media frenzy.
“It was incredible,” says Jones, who will coach England at this year’s Rugby World Cup. “One of the hardest things was to get the players’ minds back on the job, because they were being invited to be on shows when they got back from the World Cup. We had Japanese television on and they were constantly showing the win over South Africa. You could see this massive fever of rugby in Japan at that time, and my job was to keep the players’ minds on the World Cup and make sure we won our ensuing games.”
In England, Japan became the first team ever to win three games at the Rugby World Cup and still fail to make it past the pool stage, raising expectations that the Brave Blossoms could go a step further on home soil four years later.
The world will find out over the next six weeks if the team is capable of reaching the quarterfinals, and Jones believes its success or failure will be crucial to the mood of the competition.
“I think the actual tournament will run really well, I’ve got no doubts about that,” Jones says. “How much fever there is around the place will depend on the Japan team. If they have a big win against Russia in their first game, then if they’re able to beat Ireland in their second game, the tournament will be the biggest thing in Japan. If they don’t, it will still be a good tournament but you won’t get that absolute fever.”
If Japanese success at the tournament does spark the public’s imagination, how far can it take rugby in Japan? Can a sport that has always been largely confined to the margins finally elbow baseball and soccer off center stage and claim a permanent place in the spotlight?
Journalist and former Waseda University prop Matsuse thinks it will take more than just a short-term surge in popularity to give rugby a foothold in the mainstream.
“When I first started working as a journalist, Japanese soccer games only used to get about 500 fans and rugby would get tens of thousands,” he says. “But then soccer changed its strategy and also got lucky with the circumstances of the time. With the launch of the J. League, it was very easy to understand that soccer now had a professional league. But when Japanese rugby turned professional with the Top League in 2003, no one really noticed.
“After the 2015 Rugby World Cup, fans started coming to Top League games but then that started to drop off,” Matsuse says. “There needs to be a plan to capitalize on the interest that this year’s Rugby World Cup generates, to bring fans to the stadiums. It gives Japanese people a chance to go to watch rugby live in stadiums. Most people have never been to a Rugby World Cup match, so there’s a chance that this could lead to a change in rugby in Japan. On the other hand, there’s a chance that it might not.”
The Webb Ellis Cup sits on display at the summit of Mount Fuji at sunrise on Aug. 27, 2019, during its tour around Japan ahead of the Rugby World Cup. KYODO