This is Sparta: My experience of rugby in Japan

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Ben is an Inside Japan tour leader and our resident rugby fanatic – and he has good cause to be, with a son in Japan’s national under-18 squad! Here, Ben looks into Japan’s recent incredible rugby success and what it’s like to play rugby in the land of the Brave Blossoms. (Disclaimer: Like any father, Ben thinks his son is the greatest player to ever pull on a pair of boots, so expect this blog to be accordingly biased).

Rugby has been played in Japan since 1899 and there are over 120,000 registered players. Despite this, rugby has languished towards the bottom of the popularity pile until very recently – and we are talking the past two years here.

You can actually date the day it all changed: September 19th 2015. Any rugby buff will know that on this date, the Japanese rugby team pulled off a miracle, and possibly the greatest rugby upset ever, by beating South Africa 34-32 (bookmakers had Japan at odds of 66-1 for a win, I wish I had backed them). I’ll never forget watching that game with my son, the pair of us oblivious to the early hour. We woke up the whole house – and probably the whole neighborhood – with our whoops of joy. This was the day that Japan, and the rest of the rugby world, became aware that they weren’t just there to make up numbers anymore.

The Eddie Jones-orchestrated win was one of the most exciting games I have ever watched, and the passion of the players was outstanding. The following game versus Scotland attracted some 20 million viewers, and Japan’s final match versus Samoa was watched by a whopping 25 million people: the biggest national viewing audience in rugby history.

Ayumu Goromaru became an almost overnight national hero. Seen here on a poster handmade by a group of high school students in Fukuoka.
Ayumu Goromaru became an almost overnight national hero. Seen here on a poster handmade by a group of high school students in Fukuoka.

So where do I fit in to the Japanese rugby picture? Well, my son Alex (remember that name!) has been playing here since he was five years old, and earlier this year represented Japan at the under-18 level. So, although I don’t have first-hand experience of playing rugby Japanese-style, I have lived it vicariously through my son.

Playing rugby in Japan is incredibly tough. My son and I have a running joke, every time he gets injured, has to over-train, or just gets mentally tired, we shout at each other – THIS IS SPARTA!

Jokes aside, the Japanese approach rugby like they approach many things in life: with an all-consuming, almost military dedication. Since he was five years old, Alex has never had a true off season. That’s right – 13 years of nonstop rugby. In Japan there are no winter or summer seasons for sport, and most kids don’t flit from sport to sport like Western children.

I can’t speak for all families, but culturally there is some amount of shame in quitting something you’ve started, and parents will often drag their children to training despite their protests and tears (I’m getting off track, there is a whole new blog somewhere here).

Anyway, dragging my son to all those practices paid off for us. He managed to get himself accepted to one of the best rugby schools in Japan, and in 2015 and 2016, played in the All Japan rugby tournament, better known as Hanazono.

Although little known outside Japan, Hanazono is the Mecca of Japanese rugby, and to even get to the tournament, and stand on that hallowed ground, is a major achievement in itself. The tournament has been held annually since 1917.

Here is an interesting aside –  Japanese high school and university sports are often more popular, and better attended, than a lot of professional and international games, and that is across all sports. The most obvious example being Koshien, the All Japan High School Baseball Tournament, which is one of the most closely followed sporting events on the Japanese calendar (and here there’s the potential for another whole blog: the Japanese obsession with high school sports, and high school students in general. It is strange, sometimes disturbing, and I have a theory about it, too!)

To win at Hanazono, named after the ground it is held at, Hanazono in Osaka, you must first beat everyone in your prefecture, then battle it out in a knockout competition with another 51 teams. It is nigh on impossible for a school with a normal rugby program to win. The teams that do win at Hanazono are practically professionals, and the players put their sport before their studies.

Hanazono starts the day after Christmas, and goes until the end of the first week of January, and the games are screened live. Not even New Years, about the only time Japan comes close to a standstill, stops the rugby.

Crowds at Hanazono
Crowds at Hanazono
Winning at Hanazono is serious business, but still gets the typical Japanese kawaii manga treatment.
Winning at Hanazono is serious business, but still gets the typical Japanese kawaii manga treatment.

As I mentioned before, I was lucky enough to experience Hanazono first hand, both in 2015, and at the beginning of this year. Both years were emotional rollercoaster rides, but I feel blessed to have witnessed them. If you are a rugby fan, I can tell you honestly, you will never see a better, faster, more passionate style of rugby played anywhere in the world (you were warned I was going to be biased.) In all seriousness, if you are in Japan at the right time it is well worth a visit.

Over 25,000 people at the 2016 semifinal. That's more spectators than most international games.
Over 25,000 people at the 2016 semifinal. That’s more spectators than most international games.

The team my son was a member of in 2015, were Japan Champions, and won in emphatic style. We watched this tournament live on television as we didn’t think he would be playing – let me explain. On Christmas day, Alex tore his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). Actually, it exploded. We talked with his doctor and trainer, and they both agreed his knee couldn’t get any worse, and that he could play on it if he wasn’t in any pain. I thought he might get five minutes in a less important game, as a kind of consolation prize for trying so hard all year. No. To our surprise he came off the bench in each game, and started in the semifinal and final. With a torn ACL. Think about it. That is the rugby I know: sacrificing yourself for your team; putting your body on the line – but the Japanese take it to the next level. Samurai damashi they call it, or “samurai spirit” in English.

My son in action during Hanazono, 2015. Playing with a torn ACL, hence the heavily strapped legs.

After a knee reconstruction, Alex was back playing in less than eight months, and took the field again at the 2016 tournament. This year his team made it to the finals after many setbacks, and I was actually prouder of him after the team’s loss than when they won the tournament the year before. This year they broke the mould. Despite all the pain the team went through to get to the tournament, and despite the fact they lost in front of a national audience, not one boy shed a tear.

In Japan, after losing a game, it is almost expected that the team will cry, some of them collapsing in grief. Being inconsolable is the norm. This year, the losing team held their heads high, smiled, and actually laughed after being defeated. I hope I wasn’t the only person who noticed, and I hope it becomes more widespread in rugby and sports in general. Personally, I think the Japanese take school sports a little too seriously.

Alex's team bow out of the tournament
Alex’s team bow out of the tournament
No shame in losing
No shame in losing

Alex was lucky enough to be selected in the Japan under 18s to tour Scotland in March this year. Excitingly, not only for us, but for Japanese rugby in general, the boys were able to draw the series with Scotland under 19s.

This leads me to the next thing I want to blog about – the future of rugby in Japan. If anyone actually made it to the end of this blog, look forward to that in the near future. Thanks for sticking with me through my extended brag about my boy – the word for it in Japanese is “oya baka“, or overly doting parent.

Japan Under 18s after scoring the winning try against Scotland Under 19s. Alex with clenched fists.
Japan Under 18s after scoring the winning try against Scotland Under 19s. Alex with clenched fists.

When: The National High School Rugby Tournament (Hanazono) is held from the end of December until the beginning of January. The dates will change, but as a guide, the 2016 tournament went from December 26th until January 7th.

Getting there: From Osaka Station take the Osaka Loop Line to Tsuruhashi Station , then transfer to the Kintetsu Nara Line. Get off at Higashi-Hanazono station, and follow the signs, or the mass of people to the stadium.  


Want to know more about rugby in Japan?

Click here to visit our dedicated rugby site

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