Japanese truly part of rugby's "Rising Sun"


James Mortimer -     30 Oct 2009     getty

The match is not the first truly international event that Japan has staged this year, with the 2009 IRB Junior World Championships being staged in the country in June, in which the “Baby Blacks” won with their second consecutive title, beating England 44-28 in the final.

Tokyo (at the Chichibunomiya Rugby Stadium), Nagoya (Mizuho Rugby Stadium), Osaka (Kintetsu Hanazono Rugby Stadium), Fukuoka (Level 5 Stadium) and Tosu (Best Amenity Stadium) hosted the 40 matches, in what was the biggest international scale rugby tournament seen in Japan.

While the Bledisloe Cup game could be beyond that, the biggest news this year was the announcement that the country will host the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

In late July the announcement by the IRB ensured that Japan will see the illustrious quadruple of world sports, to go along with the country hosting the Summer Olympics in Tokyo in 1964, the Winter Olympics - twice held in Sapporo in 1972 and Nagano in 1998 - as well as hosting the FIFA World Cup in 2002 (co-host with South Korea).

The 2019 Rugby World Cup will see the event staged across nine locations across Japan, in Yokohama, Osaka, Tokyo, Sendai, Fukuoka, Toyota, Sapporo and Kobe. They will also play matches at Hong Kong Stadium and Singapore Sports Hub.

It is a major development for rugby in Japan, which actually has one of the largest populations of rugby union players in the world, with over 125,000. There are almost 3,700 official rugby clubs, and currently the Japanese national team – affectionately known as the Cherry Blossoms – are ranked 14th in the world.

To think that in ten years time the country will be hosting the biggest rugby event, and currently the third largest sporting event in the world (after the Olympics and Soccer/FIFA World Cup), the country has come a long way from their first introductions to rugby.

Although historic records vary, the first evidence of rugby being played in the country dates as far back as 1874, when British sailors played a game in Yokohama, fittingly where the Rugby World Cup final will be held in 2019.

The sport was officially introduced to students at Keio University, the famous school in Minato, Tokyo; that has seen no less than four Japanese prime ministers study in their halls.

Edward Bramwell Clarke and Tanaka Ginnosuke are credited with being the grandfathers of rugby in Japan, but it would take three more decades for the Japanese to play their first international match.

Prior to this debut game, the Japan Rugby Football Union would be founded, formally on November 30th, 1926, of which they would become a full member of the IRB in 1987.

In 1932 Canada would arrive in the country, and Japan would win their first ever international match 9-8.

Over the years Japan has provided some notable results, famously defeating the Junior All Blacks in 1968, and just losing to England 3-6 in 1971. They would come close to defeating Wales, losing 24-29 at Cardiff Arms Park, before achieving arguably their greatest victory, defeating Scotland 28-24 in 1989.

Now days, Japan regularly competes at the top level yearly in the Pacific Nations Cup, and is coached by former All Black John Kirwan, who took over from Jean Pierre Elissalde. The two men are the only non Japanese to have coached the national team.

Equally, Japan is noted for producing some outstanding players, especially Daisuke Ohata, who is actually the world record holder for most test tries scored.

There is also Kensuke Iwabuchi, the first Japanese rugby player to play professional rugby in England – playing for Saracens – and famous Japanese player Kenzo Suzuki, who is now a professional wrestler in Mexico, but has also fought in the world’s biggest wrestling circuit, the WWE.

The Bledisloe in Tokyo is further exposing the country to rugby, and as we shall soon see, it is only going to get bigger in the coming years.