The Rugby World Cup action in Japan will have drawn to a close with the championship match between England and South Africa on Saturday, November 2, but the legacy of Japan’s spirited 31-strong Brave Blossoms national team will survive long after.
What was the key to Japan’s most successful performance at the rugby world’s premier event to date, in which it reached the final eight for the first time?
The essence of the spirit of the Brave Blossoms that captured the attention of the entire world can be summed up in two phrases: “one for all, all for one” and “no side.”
One for All, All for One
Japan seems to be the only rugby national team to which this phrase can be applied in full measure. Anyone from England, where the game originated, or other rugby-playing European nations on hearing this expression would immediately think of the dialogue of the heroes in Alexandre Dumas’ classic novel, The Three Musketeers.
However, in this faraway East Asian island nation the phrase has been adopted to describe the self-sacrificing and dedicated spirit of the Brave Blossoms. The team slogan devised by head coach Jamie Joseph, “One Team,” epitomizes this “one for all” spirit.
During Japan’s tournament games, the spotlight often gravitated to Kenki Fukuoka and Kotaro Matsushima because of the many flashy tries they scored. However, after the match with Ireland that Japan won, thanks to a timely try by Fukuoka, he was very modest.
“The fact that everyone on the team gave his all decided the result,” declared Fukuoka. “I want to thank all my teammates.”
Nevertheless, there was more than modesty at work here. After the Japan team’s victory over Scotland, which was decided by his first-ever try as a member of the Brave Blossoms, Keita Inagaki commented: “Everyone on the team was responsible for that try. I’m glad I wasn’t the only one who did it. My plan was, if a ruck formed in that area, to try to put the ball into play.”
Here again, a player was obviously thankful to his teammates for his moment of glory.
One factor on display in these statements and the actions of the players in the matches is undoubtedly the team philosophy that a try is not the work of one individual. Head coach Joseph has worked hard to instill this understanding in the hearts and minds of all the Brave Blossoms.
With many other teams, tries often came about due to the outstanding skills or power of star players. In Japan’s case, lacking such super-players, each player was expected to play his own small part as a cog in a well-oiled machine. Success in that respect is what got the Brave Blossoms the points they needed to win.
It was a rugby style that could be compared to the operation of precision machinery. For example, the previously mentioned try by Inagaki at the 26-minute mark in the first half of the match with Scotland came about as the result of three off-loaded passes by other players. That try was emblematic of the team philosophy of “all for one.”
During the World Cup, quite a few articles in the foreign press argued that Japan should be allowed to participate in the Southern Hemisphere Rugby Championship or Northern Hemisphere Six Nations competition. Some observers say that Japan’s style of keeping the ball in motion is fun to watch and could bring new appeal to top-class tournaments.
Japan seems to be the only rugby team for which organization and function become as one in its style.
Japan-style ‘No Side’ Spirit
The other key phrase for understanding the allure of the Brave Blossoms is “no side.” It is a special mood that the Japanese team brought to this tournament.
Overseas, in many cases after a match finishes, the members of the respective teams just go their own ways. However, in Japan after the matches, Japanese players made extra efforts to reach out to their opponents on the basis of friendship, as if “all rugby players are brothers.” That is the spirit of “no side.”
Rugby already has a well-established unique custom of players from the winning side lining up in two facing ranks to form a passage so as to see off their defeated opponents in a sign of respect. In the past, overseas teams have tended to concentrate more on this than the Brave Blossoms simply because the members of the tight-knit Japan team have been more openly appreciative of what their teammates and staff have done in the match.
Be that as it may, with increased exposure to competition on the international stage, the team has refined a “no side” approach that reflects the distinctive characteristics of Japanese culture. The most conspicuous manner in which the Japanese-style “no side” philosophy has been expressed during the World Cup has been the presentation of model swords to opposing teams.
In Japan’s victory over Scotland, which might be said to have been the win that made the tournament an overall success for Japan, the Scottish player Jamie Ritchie put in a stellar performance as he took the fight to the Japanese side. After the game, Japan team captain Michael Leitch showed the respect the Japanese had for his fighting spirit by presenting Ritchie, who like Leitch plays flanker, with a model sword.
This sword was made by Uzumasa, a famous shop in Kyoto that supplies highly realistic props to movie studios for jidaigeki period dramas. Considering the interest that many foreign players have expressed towards bushido and the mystique of samurai, this particular gift must have come as a joyful surprise to Ritchie.
One rugby tradition is for players of opposing sides to exchange jerseys as a sign of mutual respect for their opponents having put up a good fight. At the same time, the jersey serves to remind and record the battle, and as a symbol of unshakeable amity.
The presentation of the sword took this tradition a step further, giving a bit of “value added,” so to speak. The giving of something to an opponent to take back home that has something of the feel of Japanese tradition and spirit might be thought of as an expression of omotenashi (hospitality).
At this World Cup the Japanese side added a new meaning and sense of value to the term “no side” that was already in use throughout the rugby world.
The “bowing ceremony” has become another indispensable element of Japan-style rugby.
People outside Japan, especially in the West, do not bow very much. That is because in many places the pose of a person with head bowed is equated with subservience or apology.
However, as foreign teams participating in the Rugby World Cup became exposed to Japanese society and culture, they came to recognize that the custom of bowing did not signify the same thing in Japan as it did in their homelands. Consequently, their thinking began to change.
After they realized that bowing could be an expression of thanks, respect, and friendship, many foreign players began to bow, even though they would never have thought of doing so back home.
Japanese rugby players — regardless of whether they are in high school, university, adult, or national team players — adhere to the post-match custom of facing spectators and bowing repeatedly. Many teams bow over and over again not just to the sections where their own supporters and the supporters of the opposing team are seated, but also to the general crowd.
Quite a few players upon entering the playing grounds will also stand on the touch line and bow to the pitch. Of course, this is meant to express thanks to the two sides, as well as the pitch itself and the people who take care of it, for making the match possible. It embodies all kinds of appreciation. Some foreign players have even taken up this ritual.
A Legacy of Values and Principles
The curtain will soon fall on the exultation and passion of the first Rugby World Cup to be held in Japan. A Japan team that had been made light of in the past had an undeniable impact on world rugby during the tournament, and the essence of that impact is certain to carry on. That legacy will consist of not just memories of brilliant speed and swarming attacking.
A game played with an elliptical ball that was invented in England 200 years ago has since developed through the efforts of countless players and others involved into something more than a simple game, something with its own values and principles.
The true legacy of Rugby World Cup 2019 is that Japan was where all that makes rugby unique was reaffirmed, while new dimensions of appeal were added.
Follow the Rugby World Cup 2019 on JAPAN Forward’s Rugby Portal here.
Author: Hiroshi Yoshida