Visiting teams and their supporters who have come to Japan for the 2019 Rugby World Cup, to their surprise and delight, are being welcomed by local residents singing their visitors' national anthems, thanks to the efforts of a former Japanese rugby star.
Scrum Unison, the grassroots choral group doing the singing, came into being largely through the efforts of Toshiaki Hirose, former captain of Japan’s national team and the professional Toshiba Fighting Lupus. The group’s unique effort is serving to enhance the rugby fever currently sweeping Japan and helping to ensure a successful World Cup.
Scrum Unison was launched earlier in 2019 with the avowed goal of welcoming foreign players and spectators coming for the World Cup with renditions of the visitors’ national anthems, sung by Japanese. Before the curtain rose on the big event on September 24, rugby players, fans, and other residents in close to 30 locales around Japan had already learned how to sing the national anthems of several of the participating teams.
Hirose’s brainchild dates back to his days as an active player. “When I was a member of the Japan national side, I was struck by how there was no culture among our team members of singing the Japanese national anthem ‘Kimigayo’ even though the teams that were winning would sing their own national anthems,” he recalled.
“So, we too started practicing singing the national anthem, and we got to the point where we could all sing together,” he said. “Singing along to the national anthem at international matches was something special, and that’s what made me decide on this course.”
Having come to realize the significance of singing national anthems as a player, even before retirement Hirose was thinking about how to put his preoccupation into action, starting with avid supporters of the Japan team.
“Since the culture of team members singing the national anthem in unison had taken root, to me the next step seemed to be to get visitors involved,” he said. “After I quit as a player, I thought it would be great if we could get fans singing along to the national anthems of visiting teams. Say during a match involving Scotland, the atmosphere was sure to be awesome. I wanted Japanese fans to be able to savor such an atmosphere.”
Although in political terms, Hirose’s example — Scotland — is only a part of the United Kingdom in which the role of England predominates, it is an independent “country” in terms of rugby and culture. And it is treated as such. At Murrayfield Stadium in Edinburgh, holy ground for Scottish rugby, it is a hallowed tradition for players and fans to sing as one with great emotion the folk song “Flower of Scotland.” The song stirs the souls of proud Scots patriots as a symbol of their determination not to be ruled by the English.
Well aware from his playing days of the importance of singing national anthems and the cultural background to the tradition, Hirose found the perfect opportunity for promoting his idea with Japan’s hosting this fall of the Rugby World Cup.
“I thought how great it would be if, besides just attending matches involving teams like Ireland and Scotland, Japanese could feel the thrill of singing their national anthems in unison,” Hirose said. “I felt it would be the best possible form of omotenashi (hospitality). I wanted others besides the Japanese team to be involved in welcoming people from various nations who come to Japan and demonstrate our feelings of respect for them.”
From May 2019 Hirose started putting his plan into action, although the venues and authorities were far from enthused about the idea when he first approached them. In fact, in many cases they simply could not understand what he was trying to do. But as Hirose continued to argue his case and led volunteers in singing in unison, attitudes turned completely around.
“Once we actually starting singing, people marveled at how great it was, and clamored for more. The reaction in Kitakyushu before the tournament began was really something,” he said. “And the enthusiasm of participants in Kumagaya and Fuchu was also tremendous.”
Throughout his career, Hirose had always exhibited leadership and an ability during matches to coolly assess the situation as an astute captain. And his focus was now on how to get more and more people involved in the World Cup, even though it was a real challenge for people to find tickets to premier match-ups, especially matches involving the Japanese side. Most attendees at the matches were already diehard rugby fans.
Nevertheless, Hirose was determined to expand the circle of interest in the international extravaganza.
“Since things were like that, I thought it would be great if even those who were unable to see matches in person could get involved in support activities,” he explained. “I thought even if tickets are unavailable, why not provide public viewing venues and fan zones — even at pubs. Wouldn’t it be great if people who gathered at these spots could sing national anthems together, thereby offering another approach to enjoying the World Cup and widening the circle of people enjoying the whole thing?”
Actually, in some cases people who had at first been reserved when watching Hirose and his volunteers singing the national anthems at events ended up joining them in the singing.
Hirose and the others felt that if those attending an event developed even a little bit more interest in and sympathy for a team by singing its national anthem, then the purpose of the event had been at least half-fulfilled.
While Japan’s Fighting Blossoms fight on against formidable opponents, Hirose intends to carry the message to various events and public viewings until the tournament champion is finally crowned.
Hirose and his colleagues are hopeful that many people who originally could not get their hands on tickets will now, through the vehicle of song, get emotionally caught up in the festival atmosphere of the World Cup and become participants rather than disengaged.
As the World Cup teams continue to fight it out on the pitch until the title match on November 2, Hirose will also continue his quest to enlarge the ranks of those singing in the spirit of unity.
Born in the Suita district of Osaka in 1981, Toshiaki Hirose began playing rugby when he was only five years old. He was captain of his high school team, the Keio University rugby team, and the professional Toshiba Brave Lupus. While with Toshiba, he was known for his unique style at the wing-three quarterback (WTB) position, while also functioning as team commander on the field. He played no small part in the Brave Lupus’ domination of the senior pro league. In 2007 Hirose joined the Japan national team, and in 2012 — after Eddie Jones took over as head coach — he was named team captain. During the off-season following the 2015 Rugby World Cup, he retired from active play, but continued to serve as one of Toshiba’s coaches until February 2019.
Learn more here about Scrum Unison, its schedule, and how to get in touch with the project (Japanese/some English).
Follow JAPAN Forward's Rugby World Cup 2019 coverage at this link.
Author: Hiroshi Yoshida