The rise of rugby in Japan

Japan surprised many with an impressive World Cup performance in which they got to the quarter finals. Tom Moorcroft looks at how rugby became popular in a nation not traditionally associated with the sport.

Tom Moorcroft
4th November 2019
Image: Instagram @rugbyworldcup, A Japan player runs onto the ball in this summer's World Cup.
What teams do you think of when you think of Rugby? The world-famous ‘All-Blacks’, New Zealand's national team, who’ve dominated international competitions as long as they’ve been around. What about our home-nations: England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland, the main figures every year in the 6 nations? Or how about the mighty Newcastle Falcons, fresh from relegation but with enough passion to go the distance? Well, what if I told you Japan are, perhaps, this years biggest Rugby team. For people not familiar with the sport, you might be thinking: “Japan? Why would I want to follow Japanese Rugby?”. Or a question I’ve received a few times this year: “Do Japan even have a Rugby team?”

If we dive deep into the annals of Japanese Rugby, you can see that they’ve actually been around for a fair amount of time. Originally being played in 1866, in ‘treaty ports’, areas of Japan which opened trade with the United States, Rugby was played between the Japanese working classes. Alongside a wave of modernisation in Japan, Universities started to organise Rugby games and, slowly but surely, Japan recorded their first International game in 1932. Since then, Rugby in Japan has gradually been on the rise, and every now and then they’ve recorded some epic feats: A 28-24 win against Scotland in 1989, a 23-8 victory against Wales in 2013 and, a moment which created goosebumps across the world, a 34-32 win against the Springboks, in the last phase of the game. I remember watching this game live, and I still get emotional thinking about it; the cheering of the crowd, the pure passion of the players, the cheek of Japan opting for a Scrum instead of being complacent in a kick, and most importantly, the pure elation of Japanese fans as their team recorded their biggest ever win.

I say ‘biggest ever win’, but after the events of this year's World Cup, I may be mistaken. Playing against Ireland in what many Ireland fans, including my house-mate, thought was a ‘sure win’, Japan battled against the odds, dominating a somewhat weaker Ireland side, and delivering a confident 19-12 win. But that wasn’t enough for Japan, and they knocked out another home-nation from progressing in the World Cup. They beat Scotland, going up 28-0 in the first half, and suppressing a Scottish comeback of 28-21, an event which my fellow Sports editor and Scotland rugby fan, Rory Ewart, probably hasn’t forgotten about. This saw Scotland fall short of, while Japan reached, their first ever World Cup Quarter Final. However, Japan lost 26-3 against finalists South-Africa, leaving a somewhat sour cherry on top of their World Cup sundae.

Japan are a team which have emerged as dark horses in World Rugby over the last 40 years, and credited themselves as a strong presence. They’re currently ranked Number 8 in the World, an all-time personal high, and I truly believe we might see them reach top 5 within no time. They’ve attracted some of Rugby’s top coaching talent over the years, no more than the likes of Eddie Jones, who was the mastermind behind their 34-32 thriller in 2015. England fans will be hoping Eddie Jones replicates something like this this year, given that he’s now our current head coach! They’re now coached by Jamie Joseph, a New Zealand born, ex-Japanese Rugby player who’ll be hoping to steer this team to success. It truly is a great time to be a Rugby fan, and I think that in a few years, when Japan are international stars, we’ll be telling the next generation that we witnessed the birth of one of the all time greats.

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AUTHOR: Tom Moorcroft
Head of Sport for The Courier. Current 3rd year English Literature and History student. Love writing about sports/music, playing the guitar and Everton FC!

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