The History of Rugby in Japan | Guidable - Your Guide to a Sustainable, Wellbeing-centred Life in Japan

The History of Rugby in Japan

By Guidable Writers Oct 24, 2019

The Japanese national rugby team, the Brave Blossoms, made history on October 13th by beating Scotland and being the first Asian nation in the history of the Rugby World Cup to advance to the quarter-finals. Although they lost their match against South Africa on October 20th, and thus their time on the RWC 2019 field came to an end, their mark on the rugby world is undeniable.

Being the host nation for this year’s Rugby World Cup, as well as the continuous success the Japanese team had, has brought rugby to the forefront of the public eye in Japan, with many people eager to join in the festivities.

However, rugby is still fairly unknown in Japan, and although the national rugby team has played in every Rugby World Cup since its formation in 1987, it has not yet gained the same traction as baseball and soccer.

Let’s look back into the history of rugby in Japan to get more insight into how the Japanese national team came to be what it is today!

Introduction of Rugby to Japan

Rugby is first documented being played in Japan in a Japan Times article dating back to 1866 which recorded a match between non-Japanese settlers in Yokohama. There were many British army men stationed in Yokohama at the time, which is likely why the Yokohama Foot Ball Club was founded around this time. Matches were played between age classes and nationalities; players were particularly from Scotland, England, or other countries when visiting marine powers would visit Yokohama.

A rugby match between Keio and Hitotsubashi universities at the Meiji Shrine ground in Tokyo, circa 1932. Photograph: Hulton Archive/

The most famous early story of rugby in Japan centers around Ginnosuke Tanaka and Edward Bramwell Clarke – both Japanese-born and English-educated, who brought it upon themselves to introduce the sport to the students at Keio University in 1899. This is arguably the first recorded instances of Japanese people playing rugby in Japan.

Establishment of the National Rugby Team

After the introduction of the sport to Keio University, the sport grew rapidly in Japan; there were an estimated 1,500 rugby clubs established by the 1920s with tens of thousands of registered players. Due to this swift expansion, the Japan Rugby Football Union was established in November 1926 to have some overarching order over the increasingly popular sport.

The first official team representing Japan was established soon after, and their first international game was against Canada in 1930. The original emblem on the breast of the Japanese team’s uniforms also consisted of 3 cherry blossoms, but while they are all open today, originally 2 were open while 1 was closed. According to Yoshihiro “Demi” Sakata, a Japanese rugby legend, noted that the 3rd was supposed to be opened when the Japanese team faced the English for the first time. That blossom would stay shut for close to 30 years, until the Japanese team played Oxford University in Osaka in 1952.

The Higashi Osaka Hanazono Rugby Stadium, built in 1929, is Japan’s oldest rugby stadium, and hosts a national high school level rugby tournament every year, not to mention professional and international games. 

Japan Rugby on the International Stage

Particularly from the 1950s onwards, the Japanese team worked to try and meet the pace of their western counterparts with long histories with rugby. They were able to find victories against other nations of similar levels, particularly other Asian nations, but struggled finding footing against the monoliths of rugby including England, Scotland, New Zealand, and so forth.

The Japanese national team that played against the All Blacks Jr. in 1968 in New Zealand. Sakata Yoshihiro is on the far left in the second row. (Photo courtesy of Japan Rugby Football Union)

Traditionally, Japanese players’ stature have been shorter and more lightweight than their western opponents, which lead to Japan needed to alter their play to use their strengths. This meant hitting lower, moving faster, and searching for openings. Their use of their knowledge proved fairly fruitful; although they lost, they were able to hold their own against rugby monoliths. 

Japan entered the Super Rugby league in 2014 with the Sunwolves, squaring off against major opponents that also held league status such as New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and Argentina. Unable to boast many wins, it was revealed that the Sunwolves would no longer be a part of the Super Rugby league after 2020 due to disputes between officials. However, with Japan’s recent successes in the Rugby World Cup, it is speculated that Super Rugby may be keen on keeping Japan in their league after all.

Japanese Players That Re-Defined Rugby in Japan

Although rugby in Japan has one of the longest histories outside of England, the sport found difficulty finding the same level of support compared to other sports such as baseball and soccer. But Japan found great pride in several of its star players, including the forefathers to today’s rugby superstars.

One of these players was Yoshihiro “Demi” Sakata, a quick-thinking runner that strategized and found his strengths to use to his advantage. At a physical disadvantage compared to foreign towering players, the Japanese team focused on “running rugby,” of which Sakata was a key factor. Then-coach Tetsunosuke Onishi recognized his team’s overall physical disadvantage and developed a play that would that would help them be able to break through their opponents’ towering defenses. This strategy would bring Sakata to score several tries against strong teams such as the Junior All Blacks, which then led to him being named 1 of 5 players of the year

After gaining more international recognition, although still being relatively unknown outside of Japan, Sakata accepted an offer to play on a New Zealand team. He had a relatively successful tenure during this time, and returned to Japan to play close-scoring games against England.

After Sakata came arguably one of Japan’s most famous rugby players in history: Seiji Hirao. Nicknamed “Mr. Rugby” by many media outlets, his influence was vast, and he burst onto the rugby main stage at a very young age. Rugby was enjoying a large amount of popularity in the 1980s, with spectators watching real-time games on the television and going to watch live games. Hirao came from an unknown school participating in the Hanazono tournament – the national high school rugby tournament. He and his team emerged victorious over all the other schools that were known for their sports teams, and he soon after became a member of the national team at only 19 years old, the 6th youngest player is history to debut in an international game representing Japan. After graduation from university, he postponed playing for a local Japanese team to experience playing rugby in England – much to the dismay of many teams and scouts that were after this up-and-coming star.

His statistics speak for themselves – 35 caps representing Japan, played in 3 Rugby World Cups (including 1 as captain), and coached the Japanese team for the 1999 Rugby World Cup. His dedication to the world of rugby and sports stayed strong long after he retired from the field, and many mourned his death in 2016 after battling cancer. His memorial was attended by 1,300 people including friends, former teammates, and colleagues, and included a eulogy by former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori. His memory lives on, a 2004 drama was loosely based on his life, and many contribute large developments to the rugby world to Seiji Hirao.

Rugby World Cup

The first Rugby World Cup took place in New Zealand in 1987. Japan is the only Asian nation to qualify and play during every tournament since the first. Japan has played a total of 33 games throughout the 9 tournaments (the RWC happens once every 4 years), and has won a total of 8 matches. Among these victories are two major upsets that turned the rugby world on its head and skyrocketed Japan into the minds of all rugby fans.

In the 2015 Rugby World Cup, Japan faced one of rugby’s arguably strongest teams – South Africa. With a long history of rugby and having won two previous Rugby World Cup trophies, this match was considered by many a David and Goliath fight. However, by the last few minutes of the match the score was neck-to-neck. In the third minute of overtime Japan scored the deciding try, and set their score to 2 points over South Africa – securing their victory. The roar of the crowd was deafening, and Japan was called “everyone’s second favorite team” by the media (if you aren’t Japanese, of course).

The Japanese team scored yet another major upset 4 years later in the 2019 Rugby World Cup by beating Ireland, a nation that went into the RWC ranked #2 in the world in rugby. This win moved both Japanese and foreign fans, and the prospects of the Japanese team during the tournament excited many. Beating two reigning rugby giants two tournaments in a row was a pride and expectation booster, and fans could start to expect victory for a once looked-over team.

Their following defeat of Scotland cemented their position at the top of their pool – therefore securing their place in the quarter finals. Captain Michael Leitch stated before the Rugby World Cup began that the team’s goal was to reach the top 8 in the Rugby World Cup – which they achieved after their victory. After that, the team continued to set their sights higher. 

From there Japan and South Africa were set to face each other again, this time with higher expectations and higher stakes. This match would decide who would advance to the semi-finals and whose time at the Rugby World Cup would come to an end. This time South Africa proved victorious, thus ending Japan’s winning streak and taking Japan off the contender list for the trophy.

This year Japan set both personal and international records by jumping to an all-time-high ranking of #7 in the world, and being the first Asian nation to ever enter the top 8 in the international competition. Expectations for the Brave Blossoms are rising with each year, and the future of rugby in Japan is looking bright.

Looking to the Future

Japan’s time at the 2019 Rugby World Cup may have come to an end, but it ushered in a new era for the sport in Japan. Many domestic fans felt great surges of pride and emotion, hailing the brave players national heroes. This includes fans cheering praise for not only the Japanese-born players, but the foreign-born as well. 

Although unable to advance very far in the 2015 Rugby World Cup tournament, the victory over South Africa brought about a wave of national pride, during which time Ayumu Goromaru, one of the all-stars of Japanese rugby, took advantage of to highlight the importance of the influence of the foreign-born players on the Japanese victory.

“As more people are now paying attention to rugby, I want everyone to also pay attention to the foreign players on the Japan team. They have chosen to represent Japan over their home countries, and are fighting for Japan. They are the best comrades. Their nationalities are different, but they are bearing the load for Japan. This is what rugby is all about.”

As the Japanese team progressively improves, the impact the foreign-born players have also had is undeniable. Perhaps sports is will pave the way for more inclusivity in Japan. Several foreign-born Japanese players have gained Japanese citizenship, speak Japanese, and seem perfectly comfortable with their life in the country. Among them is the captain Michael Leitch, a New Zealand native who has been living and playing rugby in Japan since high school

Japanese and non-Japanese players alike, not to mention the New Zealand-born coach Jamie Johnson, have reached a new level of fame in Japan, their faces and names littering newspapers, televisions, promotional ads, and more. The Brave Blossoms have gotten increasingly better with each Rugby World Cup, and the rugby world is excited to see what they will bring about next.

Rugby is now expected to become one of Japan’s most popular sports, and as a rugby fan myself, I would like to thank all the rugby players and staff, and look forward to what the future has in store for Japanese rugby.

You can see more about the history of rugby in Japan in detail at the Brave Blossoms: The History of Rugby in Japan exhibition in Tokyo for the duration of the Rugby World Cup!

Featured photo: © Japan Rugby Football Union