You can go ahead and pick your jaw from the floor now. Yes, it has been over nine decades of rugby in the land of the rising sun. It is a bit odd for a country so averse to external traditions to rank as the tenth most powerful nation in this sport discipline. There are currently over 3,600 professional clubs in Japan that are home to more than 126,000 players. Additionally, about 55 million locals tune in every season to watch the Brave Blossoms test their metal against the world’s elite.
So, why is rugby such a key part of Japanese sporting culture? There are many factors responsible for this, as you shall find out in this piece. You will know a little about its history and what the future holds for the game as you read along.
Japan rugby is under the mandate of the Japan Rugby Football Union (JRFU), one of the two executive council members of World Rugby, outside the six nations. The federation dates to November 1926 and its influence continues to grow to this day. Before its formation, rugby was a little-known pastime for Keio University students as far back as 1899. Visiting ship crews and foreign residents also took part in the activity at the ports of Kobe and Yokohama.
As the sport’s affinity continued, the powers that be saw fit to have the sport coordinated by a central authority in 1926. Since then, the JRFU is the sole custodian for all of the national team’s international activities. Furthermore, it also sponsors domestic tournaments, where the next batch of national superstars sharpen their skills. For example, The All-Japan University Rugby Championship sees sixteen university team battle for the title each year.
The road to international recognition
Japan’s debut in international rugby was back in January 1932. They played host to Canada in Osaka, winning the game by a single point, with 9-8 being the final score. Although narrow, the victory was the start of a sporting revolution in the country. Further victories over the Junior All Blacks in 1968 and a fairly successful tour in Wales only led to an increase in the country’s pursuit for international recognition.
Despite appearing in the Rugby World cup since its inception, 2019 will forever hold a special place. Not only did Japan host the tournament, but it also made it to the quarter-finals. Six Nations stalwarts such as Ireland and Scotland were no match for the pacey and skilful Sakura. Unfortunately, the dream came to an end when they lost to eventual champions, South Africa. All in all, it was a great showing from a nation that was once considered a tier two rugby nation.
What next for Japan Rugby?
Looking at where the nation ranks at present, you will be forgiven to think that all is rosy. However, as the sport continues to take root globally, JRFU needs to constantly up its game to remain the top nation in Asia. Here are a couple of tweaks that can help the cause:
More screen time
Soccer and baseball enjoy the largest viewing audiences in Japan. Looking at recent estimates, you will find the average viewing exceeding hundreds of millions. An increase in the broadcast of domestic rugby competitions will spark more interest in the sport leading to more sign-ups. Similarly, allowing fans to bet on the sport as they do in horse racing and soccer will also add a financial lure to audiences. For example, the opening of betting pots with no deposit bonus can be a good start. As interest picks up, additional bonuses and incentives can come into play.
Make it part of the curriculum
A deeper look into the top five ranking nations in world rugby will give you a clue why they are there. Rugby is part of the extra-curricular activities in their education curriculum. Consequently, these nations ensure a constant supply of fresh talent each year to their national teams. Since 2005, Japan is encouraging participation in domestic tournaments, and the results are positive. To date, there are over 5000 new players that enter the fold each year.
Import more foreign talent
You can never go wrong by bringing ideas from across the border. The influx of new training methods and innovative plays allows for the creation of a multi-faceted team. JRFU is continuously exploring this option. The current head coach of the national team and Beauden Barrett’s acquisition by Suntory Sungoliath is enough evidence.
It may still be too early to count Japan as one of the world’s elite rugby nations. However, the trajectory of the past nine decades is encouraging. It is only a matter of time before you start seeing Japanese players in your local rugby union games.