Despite starting at the same time, Saturday at Eden Park will be the first time the two counties have tussled in an international.
Japan failed to score a point in three games at the 1991 World Cup losing to Spain (0-30), Sweden (0-20) and France (0-62).
Their first win was against Sweden (10-5) in the 1994 World Cup which the Black Ferns didn't attend.
Japan have had 32 wins, a draw and 30 defeats in 63 tests.
In May this year Japan beat Fiji (28-14) and Australia (12-10). They have also split series against Ireland and South Africa in their most successful season ever.
A big part of Japan's rapid improvement has been a growing Kiwi connection in their rugby establishment.
Co-captain Kennedy Simon, Kendra Reynolds, Renee Holmes, Grace Steinmetz and Sevens gun Tenika Willison are just some contemporaries who have plied their trade in the land of the rising sun.
Together with husband Brent Kaua, Crystal Kaua, Skills Coach and Analyst with the Black Ferns Sevens enjoyed a successful period coaching women’s sevens and 15s for the Mie Pearls club in Yokkaichi. In their final season the Pearls won the National XV aside competition.
“We loved living and coaching in Japan, our kids are fluent Japanese speakers and the people there mean a lot to us. Japan gave us the ability to be full time professional coaches. Japanese players are dedicated to the pursuit of perfection which makes them very coachable,” Kaua said.
Women’s rugby in Japan is set up in much the same way as the men’s competition. Companies have rugby clubs that employ Japanese players and allow them to work part time so they can train and play during the season. Foreigners are typically on full time contracts, a rare, and one of the first, professional pathways for women.
The fifteen aside competition is split into two halves of the country with crossover finals at the end. The Sevens works much like the World Series. There are four grand prix events with the winner of the overall title the team with the most points at the climax of the season.
Lesley McKenzie was a combative hooker capped 25 times by Canada. She played the World Cup in 2006 and 2010 before transitioning into coaching. In 2014, McKenzie was the Wellington Rugby Football Union's girls development co-coordinator before shifting to Whanganui for a similar role. In 2018 she relocated to Japan to coach the national sevens team, a year later taking the reins of the fifteen-a-side team.
It’s clear McKenzie has made a big difference. She travels throughout the country observing the game and assisting coaches and players. Japan has always had the ability to play fast but now they’re more nuanced and dynamic. The wins against Australia and Fiji in May were ground-breaking. Crystal Kaua saw McKenize in action first-hand.
“What Lesley has done for the national team and Rugby throughout Japan is a game changer. She has brought a real physicality to the way they play on top of the naturally fast and skilful game they’ve always played. We are excited to see eight of our Mie Pearls players take the field this World Cup.”
Minori Yamamoto and Seina Saito are two players to watch. Yamamoto is a first-five who can cover midfield with real smarts, and two years of UK experience. Saito is an abrasive and busy loose forward.
Perhaps the most famous Black Fern in Japan is twice World Cup winner Carla Hohepa. She married former Otago wing and Japanese international Karne Hesketh. At the 2015 World Cup, Hesketh scored the winning try for Japan against the Springboks, arguably the most famous upset in rugby history.
“He’s pretty low-key about it, but he still gets mobbed to this day; everybody knows who he is. He was named police chief for the day in Fukuoka which meant he got to go around in the back of a convertible waving to everyone like a king in a street parade. The Japanese have adopted us like family. They’re special people,” Hohepa remarked in 2020.
Carla’s second son Kojiro is named after a famous samurai.
The Black Ferns host Japan for the first time on Saturday at Eden Park, Auckland at 4:30pm.