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Year of the Brave Blossoms

Rugby World Cup creates chances for Japan to win points on and off the playing field

Japan's rugby team celebrates victory against South Africa at Brighton Community Stadium in the U.K. in September 2015.   © Reuters

Welcome to the land of the rising scrum. That will be the message from Japan in the autumn of 2019, when it hosts the 9th Rugby World Cup. It is important for Japan that the tournament is a success; sports diplomacy is a key ingredient in its "soft power" strategy and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics are coming up next. It is equally important for rugby, as it attempts to establish itself as a global sport. A decent on-field performance by the Japanese team would work wonders on both counts.

This is the first World Cup to be held outside rugby's traditional homelands of Britain, its former dominions and France and the first to be hosted by a so-called "second tier" nation. In the 2018 football (sometimes known as "soccer") World Cup, there was a perceptible closing of the gap between the traditional superpowers, such as Brazil, Germany and Italy (which did not even qualify) and smaller, less heralded nations such as Croatia and Belgium.

Similar trends may be emerging in the world of rugby. This autumn Fiji beat France in Paris, and other "minor" nations (in rugby terms), such as the United States, Russia and Georgia, are becoming increasingly competitive. Japan suffered some heavy defeats in the 1990s, but can boast the greatest feat of giant-killing in the history of the Rugby World Cup and one of the greatest in any sport: the thrilling victory over the behemoths of South Africa in 2015.

This time Japan's group includes Ireland, currently ranked second in the world, a greatly improved Scotland, the ferociously physical Samoa, and Russia. In such company, numbering among the two teams to ascend into the final knockout stages is a big ask, but if the "Brave Blossoms" can summon the confidence and sparkle they showed against the South Africans, anything is possible.

It would certainly be fitting given Japan's long engagement with the sport, which dates back to the early years of both rugby and modern Japan itself.

Rugby, like football and baseball, was first played in Japan in the 1870s by foreign sailors and traders based in the open port of Yokohama. The first Japanese to play rugby was probably Ginnosuke Tanaka who was at Cambridge University in the early 1890s. On his return to Japan, he, together with the Yokohama-born Englishman E.B. Clark, taught the game to students at Keio University. The annual match between Keio and its great rival Waseda University remains a sporting highlight today. Tanaka -- also an accomplished judoka and enthusiastic patron of the geisha quarters -- went on to preside over the founding of the Japanese Rugby Football Union in 1926.

In the words of Huw Richards, author of "A Game for Hooligans; the History of Rugby Union," rugby is an "exasperating compound of beauty and violence, elegance and complexity, gentlemanliness and hooliganism." From the start, it seemed to suit Japanese values -- or at least the values that the Japanese elite wished to promote. Inazo Nitobe, the early twentieth century educator and author of "Bushido: the Soul of Japan," was in no doubt about the merits of the sport.

"Playing baseball could be likened to picking a pocket," he was quoted as saying in the Tokyo Asahi newspaper in 1911. "To play baseball, you must be able to deceive the opposing team and lead them into a trap ... . The British national sport is [rugby] football, and to play football, you have to be strong and brave enough to keep the ball without fearing injury. You must keep the ball even if your nose is crooked or your jaw bone is fractured."

Befitting its elite status, rugby had the approval of the Imperial family. Prince Chichibu, Emperor Hirohito's younger brother, watched matches during his brief spell at Oxford University and became a patron of the game at home. Chichibu Stadium, the headquarters of Japanese rugby -- now in the process of renovation -- was named after him.

Despite the formidable logistics, Japan sent a national team to tour British Columbia in 1930 and the Canadians reciprocated in 1932. All-Japan lost the first five matches, but won the last 38-5 before a crowd of 25,000. During the war, rugby, like baseball, although an "enemy sport" was too popular to be banned. Instead its earlier, more native name was revived -- in Chinese characters, "tokyu" or "fight ball."

For much of the postwar era, Japanese rugby developed in isolation from the mainstream thanks to geography, travel costs and the exclusionary mentality of the traditional rugby powers. Yet schools, universities and the teams sponsored by major companies like Kobe Steel ensured that the game thrived. Today rugby is the third most popular team sport, behind baseball and football. Japan boasts 25,000 players, the fourth largest number in the world.

The extent to which the sport has permeated Japanese culture can be gauged by the fact that the word "rugby" has become one of the "season words" that are an essential component of every haiku.

Largely due to the efforts of poet Seishi Yamaguchi (1901-1994), who wrote dozens of haiku about rugby, the word has been accepted as a signifier of winter. One of his best-verses goes:

The rugby player

With his jersey torn to shreds

Carries on fighting

The sport crops up in popular culture too. Singer Yumi "Yuming" Matsutoya, Japan's answer to Carole King, has a rugby-themed song called "No Side." "School Wars" -- a 1980s TV drama series and 2004 feature film -- tells the fact-based story of how an ex-rugby-player-turned-teacher molded a bunch of thuggish delinquents into a rugby team.

More current is "All Out," a manga series running since 2013 (and 2016 TV anime) that follows the progress of two young rugby players. Written by a woman in her twenties, it presents its teenage audience with a vision of rugby as a character-forming activity. Inazo Nitobe, proponent of the samurai spirit a hundred years ago, would understand.

Sport is not just a physical activity, but a way of engaging with the world. Rugby originated in the British public school system in the early Victorian era and spread thanks to the military and commercial reach of the British Empire. Today, it is no longer the property of elite white males, but of everyone that plays it, whether male or female, European, Asian, African, Australasian, North or South American or Pacific Islander. A successful World Cup will confirm that rugby is changing rapidly with the times, and so is Japan.

Peter Tasker is an analyst with Tokyo-based Arcus Research.

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