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Can Japan Do an ‘Invictus’ at the Rugby World Cup?




The 2009 movie Invictus, directed by Clint Eastwood, told the inspiring story of how former South African president Nelson Mandela rallied the support of a nation badly divided by the rancorous racial legacy of apartheid behind the national rugby team, the Springboks. With the backing of all ethnic groups, the team overcame numerous difficulties to achieve a miracle victory in the 1995 World Cup.


It was a classic case of unity and spirit overcoming seemingly impossible odds. The name of the film was taken from the poem “Invictus” (meaning “invincible” in Latin) by William Ernest Henley, which had provided Mandela with much solace during his decades in prison.


Host country Japan is already causing waves at the ongoing Rugby World Cup, reaching the quarterfinals for the first time in history after winning all four matches in the pool round. But its biggest challenge awaits.




Japan’s Rugby Team is Hot – Why Now?


Ironically, Japan’s team meets perennial powerhouse South Africa on Sunday, October 20, at the Ajinomoto Stadium in Tokyo.


The Brave Blossoms are a motley group of players born in seven different nations, including Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand. Yet they have come to pride themselves in being ONE TEAM and would very much like to follow Mandela’s example.  


The greatest factor behind Japan’s ability to beat the sides from the traditionally strong rugby nations of Ireland and Scotland in the current tournament is that this year alone it engaged in 240 days of lengthy, hard training to fine-tune its skills and build team solidarity. This was a luxury no other team could afford. That is the secret weapon that has allowed Japan to punch above its weight.



The backgrounds of the Brave Blossoms are indeed disparate. So in order to weld them into “one team,” captain Michael Leitch, who was born in New Zealand, has had them practice singing Japan’s national anthem, “Kimigayo.”



Why Has Japan’s Rapid Progress Attracted Such Attention?


In the past the Rugby World Cup had only been staged in England, one of the other traditional rugby-playing European countries or rugby empire countries like New Zealand. For a country with an until-now weak side like Japan to host the event is far from the norm in the rugby world.


The key term to explain the situation is “worldwide.” World Rugby, the governing body for the rugby union, realized that, although the Rugby World Cup had grown to be the third largest international sporting event behind the Olympics and Soccer World Cup, it still lacked popularity and player populations outside the British Commonwealth member nations.



In order to overcome a feeling of being boxed in, World Rugby had looked to Asia as a target for expansion.


World Rugby paid attention to the “sleeping lion” — China first. But the envisaged huge market failed to materialize. China decided to concentrate its investments in money, time, and labor into building up its capabilities in the seven a side version of the sport added as an Olympic event, rather than the 15-man rugby union.


Instead, the impact of the rapid improvement of the Japanese team and its meteoric rise on the rugby world has been incalculable.


Shortly after Japan clinched its berth in the quarterfinals, Shigetaka Mori, the chairman of the Japan Rugby Football Union (JRFU), lauded the Japan team’s rapid progress and announced Japan would be joining the Rugby Championship (TRC), an annual event involving teams from Argentina, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. This year saw a shortened version of that event because of the Rugby World Cup.



“Yes, I think it was due to the huge potential audience,” Mori explained. “I think world rugby has woken up to just how much promise the Japan market holds. But whether that situation will continue depends on whether from here on out we do what needs to be done.”



Building Long-Term Support


Mori is well aware that for Japan to truly gain admittance into the ranks of the global rugby powers depends on talent and, at the same time, financing.


Money is an ongoing problem for rugby in the Southern Hemisphere. In Europe, multinational corporations based in the region provide support for rugby leagues and associations.



Advertising for global brands such as Heineken, Société Générale, and Land Rover are very much in evidence at this year’s World Cup. At the same time, for the Six Nations Rugby Tournament (involving England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales) the main sponsors are Guinness and the French automaker Peugeot.


Multinationals are willing to spend huge sums to secure such sponsorship. However, it is always a struggle for Southern Hemisphere rugby, since there are few global-sized companies based there.


The Brave Blossoms view the Rugby World Cup as a golden opportunity to show the world what they are made of. And already there are calls from overseas voices in the world of rugby for Japan to be included in the Southern Hemisphere Rugby Championship and Six Nations competition. 



Can Rugby Fever Be Sustained?



If the rugby fever currently sweeping Japan can be sustained and new sponsorships added to the list of companies that have supported Japanese rugby up to now, then countries in the Southern Hemisphere may well come to emulate Marco Polo in viewing Japan as “the Land of Gold” (“Zipangu”).


Four years ago, during the 2015 Rugby World Cup, fullback Ayumu Goromaru, who played a major role in Japan’s miracle victory over South Africa, became a national rugby icon and set off a rugby boomlet. But a mere one year later, the enthusiasm of the Japanese public had largely evaporated. In short, the necessary steps were not taken to harness and sustain the initial interest.


The question now is how much of the current public enthusiasm can be maintained after the World Cup ends.


Will this enthusiasm assume a tangible form in terms of investment? Notable in this regard is the announcement in June by Katsuyuki Kiyomiya, vice chairman of the JRFU, that plans are afoot to start a new domestic professional rugby league. But materialization of such efforts will depend on whether new financial backing can be found.



Japan’s challenge to the rugby world will take place against this background of reform on the domestic front. The real struggle has just begun.


Japan’s rapid progress in fielding a first-class rugby side is definitely shaking up the world of rugby. Hope is running high, and a new dawn for Japanese rugby alluringly beckons.


Nevertheless, no one can say for sure what lies over the horizon.



RELATED STORY: Japan Advances to RWC Quarter Finals in Historic, Nail-biter Win Over Scotland



Follow the Rugby World Cup 2019 on JAPAN Forward’s Rugby Portal, here.



Author: Hiroshi Yoshida