Japan rugby history: The Brave Blossoms

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Following the excitement of the autumn internationals, we’re looking ahead to the biggest rugby tournament of all next year in Japan! Phil McGowan, curator at the World Rugby Museum, looks behind the scenes of Japan’s surprising love affair with rugby.

Rugby history in Japan: The Brave Blossoms

In 1853 the arrival of Commodore Perry’s black ships in Edo Bay heralded the end of over two centuries of self-enforced Japanese isolation. Witnessing how far foreign technology had developed, a new spirit of modernisation emerged in Japan that would result in the Meiji Restoration in 1868.

Before then, Westerners and Western culture and technology had already begun to arrive, initially around the treaty ports of Yokohama and Kobe. Football was first played on the bluff in Yokohama in 1863 by British expatriates. By 1866 Yokohama Foot Ball Club, playing mostly rugby-rules, had become the first football club in all of Asia.

World Rugby Museum, Rugby World Cup Japan 2019
© World Rugby Museum, Twickenham

A hand-drawn picture published in Graphic Magazine in 1874 depicted a rugby match taking place under Mount Fuji while a collection of traditionally dressed Japanese watched in a mixture of curiosity and bewilderment.

‘Father of Japanese Rugby’

But the Japanese themselves would adopt the game in 1899 as part of the cultural exchange that was taking place between Britain and Japan. Responsible for this development were two childhood friends who had gone to school together in Yokohama before studying together at Cambridge University. Edward Bramwell Clarke, though born in Yokohama, was the son of British expatriate, and Ginosuke Tanaka is now remembered as the ‘Father of Japanese Rugby’.

It was they who invited their students at Keio University in 1899, to learn the rules of the game. Once established at Keio the game spread to Doshisha, Waseda, Kansai and Kanto ARC Universities.

From Japan to Britain

In 1923, the second son of Emperor Taisho, Prince Chichibu took an interest in rugby and had the rules explained to him by a promising player and coach named Shigeru Kayama. In 1925 they visited Britain where the Prince enrolled at Oxford University, while Kayama trained and played with Richmond and Harlequins.

On their return to Japan they founded the Japanese Rugby Football Union with Prince Chichibu as Patron and Ginosuke Tanaka as President. In 1930 the first All-Japan side took to the field to face British Columbia, coached by Shigeru Kayama. The Brave Blossoms were born.

New exhibition: The history of rugby in Japan

World Rugby Museum, Rugby World Cup Japan 2019
© World Rugby Museum, Twickenham

A new exhibition at the World Rugby Museum: Brave Blossoms: the History of Rugby in Japan, tells the story of rugby in Japan – from establishing educational and diplomatic links in the late Edo to early Meiji period, to rebuilding Japan in the post-War period, and right up to the preparations for the Rugby World Cup in Japan 2019.

There’s new research and objects from around the world, including the first artistic depiction of rugby in Japan in 1874; a 1904 jersey from Keio University, the oldest rugby jersey in Japan; archival material relating to Prince Chichibu; the story of the blossom as related by Demi Sakata; and exclusive interviews with Eddie Jones about Rugby World Cup 2015.

Stay up to date with the World Rugby Museum’s latest developments on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and find Phil McGowan on Twitter.

Do you have tickets for the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan? Take a look at our range of Self-Guided and Small Group Tour Japan Rugby Travel packages to start planning the rest of your trip.

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