Japan has become the first country outside of the traditional strongholds to host the World Cup, with the Brave Blossoms kicking off the worlds greatest festival of rugby against Russia.
A unique opportunity to spread the game into an emerging market, this World Cup has the capacity to increase rugby’s global reach. However, Japan’s rugby heritage is as rich as any country, and with 125,000 active rugby players in Japan, the country’s playing pool is the fourth largest in the world.
Rugby has been played in Japan since the Yokohama Football Club, containing a number of British sailors, initiated the game in 1866. Since then rugby in Japan has grown slowly, reaching its greatest moment in 2015, with arguably the greatest shock ever in professional rugby union: the 34 – 32 win over the Springboks at the last World Cup.
That win is the foundation upon which this World Cup is built. It triggered an Asia audience growth of 221 per cent according to World Rugby, and Japan will be aiming to carry a similar giant killing threat this time round.
The health of the grassroots game is excellent too. One of the largest clubs, Tokyo’s Fukawa, boasts an enviable 300 active players across age groups. Fukawa was founded in 1948 and is one of 150 clubs catering for full contact games for players aged over 40.
In Japan rugby’s social role amongst the elderly is critical. It is thought there are 10,000 veteran players, an incredible number in country where loneliness is a particularly pertinent problem for Japans aging population.
“I can’t stand not playing,” says 86 year old doctor Ryuichi Nagayama, who has broken several ribs and his collar bone in his playing career at Fukawa, where he is the oldest active player. “This may sound strange, but I lost my wife years ago and now I would say I don’t mind dying playing rugby.”
The passion for rugby in Japan, then, is real. Nagayama is just one example of how important rugby has become to those in Japan who play. Jamie Joseph, the former All Black who took over the Japanese Head Coach role from Eddie Jones, recognises that this autumn his side has a unique opportunity to expand rugby’s appeal throughout the nation.
“I understand that it’s crucial for the ongoing development of the game in Japan that we play a brand of rugby that is exciting, attractive, great to watch and that will encourage young players to take up the game.”
Having already beaten Fiji, Tonga and the USA this year, his team will be targeting Scotland and Ireland; the two sides they will hope to be rivalling for a spot in the quarter finals.
As half a million foreign fans land in Japan, a traditionally conservative and insular country, a festival of rugby gets underway. Those with an interest in the sport must hope it is a celebration of all that is good about the game. A strong run from the hosts would certainly help to electrify the tournament.
Written by Joe Ronan