Japan braces for rugby revolution

AFP Relax NewsMay 3, 2012
Japan braces for rugby revolution

With the national team performing well on the pitch and the biggest event in the Rugby Union's international calendar looming on the horizon, the sport is experiencing an increase in popularity in Japan.

Rugby has a long and distinguished history in Japan and there are high hopes that the sport -- at all levels -- will experience a further boost in the run-up to Japan hosting the Rugby World Cup in 2019.

Japan will be the first Asian nation to stage the showpiece event in international rugby and the national team -- known as the "Brave Blossoms," after the cherry blossom motif the players wear on their shirts -- is demonstrating its prowess on the pitch at the ongoing Asian Five Nations tournament.

In their latest game, played in Tokyo on Saturday, Japan demolished Kazakhstan 87-0.

Under new coach Eddie Jones, the former Australian international, Japan ran in 13 tries in their 17th straight win in the five-year-old competition.

It is that sort of dominance that is attracting more players and spectators to the sport here.

The first recorded rugby match in Japan took place between British sailors in Yokohama in 1874. In 1899, Cambridge graduates Professor Edward Bramwell Clarke and Ginnosuke Tanaka introduced the game to students at Keio University.

It was another 20 years before the game really caught on, but today there are more than 120,000 registered players, from grass-roots clubs through to professionals, and no fewer than 3,631 official clubs.

In the Kanto region of Tokyo and the surrounding prefectures, an estimated 200 players turn out for the four mainly foreign teams: Yokohama Country & Athletic Club, All France RC, Tokyo Gaijin and the Tokyo Crusaders.

"Rugby is one of the most highly skilled physical sports around," said Gareth Lim, managing director of Focus Consulting Partners and a stalwart of the Crusaders since 2008.

"Played well, it is sheer elegance," he added. "It is 15 people on one pitch, each with a different role, but organising together into an amazingly well-coordinated unit."

The sport is played in Japanese high schools and has a huge following at the university level, where the matches between the top schools regularly attract larger crowds than games in the Japanese professional soccer league.

Teams in the professional league are largely supported by Japanese corporations, with such household names as Ricoh, Toshiba, NEC, Kobe Steel, Suntory, Sanyo and Toyota all putting out teams to compete in the Top League.