New Zealand battled their way past a spirited Japanese side on Saturday in front of a record-breaking 65,188 fans at the National Stadium as the hosts showed to the world their staying power on the field and reverence for the All Blacks brand.
Japan’s Brave Blossoms lived up to their moniker with a tenacious display but the occasion for the home faithful was about more than 80 minutes of world-class rugby.
Following Japan’s Rugby World Cup heroics at the 2015 World Cup, their successful hosting of the 2019 edition and, once again, their on-the-field exploits, as well as a new, fully professional domestic league, the country’s rugby boom was in full swing.
While the pandemic monetarily halted the sport’s growth domestically, Saturday’s highly-anticipated visit from the All Blacks served as a timely reawakening with the new League One season set to start in December.
The drawing power of New Zealand combined with the recent loosening of COVID-19 restrictions in Japan and reopening of the borders to tourists ensured a spine-tingling matchday atmosphere.
Saturday’s attendance at the National Stadium, which was rebuilt for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, beat the venue’s previous record of 64,922 set by a football match between Paris Saint-Germain and Kawasaki Frontale in July.
The game hit another milestone as it surpassed the 57,011 crowd who saw Japan face France in July in the same stadium to become the biggest crowd on record to witness a non-Rugby World Cup game in Japan.
Demand for tickets was such that the game sold out within minutes of going on general sale and tables to witness the must-see game at bars and restaurants across the capital were booked out weeks in advance.
The nearby Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground - a hallowed ground steeped in character – which is also the headquarters of the headquarters of the Japan Rugby Football Union (JRFU) – and hosts teams such as Suntory Sungoliath, was opened up to show the game on the big screen to accommodate as many fans as possible.
The JRFU announced that over 14,000 people attended the Chichibu fan zone throughout the day and more than 4,000 fans enjoyed the live broadcast of the game.
Saturday’s encounter illustrated to the world the merits of a rising Japanese team but off the field, Japan’s level of awe and admiration for New Zealand has never been stronger. The game was the hottest ticket in town but it goes further to the Japanese public.
As the nation has fallen in love with the game and their players have become household names in the country, they remain fascinated by every facet of the All Black’s brand of rugby including the pre-match Haka and it’s cultural significance.
Japan came to a standstill for Ka Mate and both teams never looked back as they produced one of the most stirring games of the year so far.
Rugby union is not merely an 80-minute TV product. For those fortunate to be in Tokyo the game was about meeting people, embracing new cultures and languages and both sets of supporters, as well as neutral fans, were united by their mutual passion for the game and the returning freedom to enjoy it to its fullest.
Those values and rich experiences are not always transmitted on a TV broadcast.
Japanese and New Zealand fans more than played their part and fans will be eager to see further encounters between the two nations in the coming years.
Japanese fan Wataru, 36, from Kanagawa, wore a New Zealand jersey to watch the game, as did hosts of families of all ages amongst a sea of red and white Japanese shirts.
“For me, New Zealand is a special country and I always go out of my way to watch their games.
“I am already absorbed into the match before it starts, when New Zealand performs the Haka.
“It’s very cool and I’ve learnt the meaning behind it and we appreciate the history and the passion of the New Zealand players,” he told the AllBlacks.com.
Wataru, whose favourite Japanese player is Kazuki Himeno – who proved to be a popular figure at the Highlanders – will be tracking the All Blacks during the Northern Tour which kicks off on Saturday in Cardiff as Wales host New Zealand at the Principality Stadium.
“Today is what the game was all about, I’ve enjoyed meeting fans from New Zealand as much as I have watching game itself. I’m going to continue following the All Blacks and hope the game of rugby continues to help bring the world closer together.”
Mark Pickering is a rugby journalist based in Tokyo.