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Rugby World Cup

Why rugby spirit matters to Japan companies

Domestic team owners Toyota, Canon and Panasonic leverage values of game to embrace diversity

Team Japan line up before the match against Russia in the Rugby World Cup 2019 at Tokyo Stadium on Sept. 20. The squad includes 15 foreign-born players, almost half the full roster's 31 players. (Photo by Toshiki Sasazu)

TOKYO -- The big corporate icons that field the 16 teams in the Japan Rugby Top League will dispute this, but it is ironic Japan is hosting this year's Rugby World Cup more than two decades after the sport began losing popularity here.

The number of rugby players in Japan today is 95,000, down from 125,000 in 2005, the earliest year for which the Japan Rugby Football Union has numbers.

The JRFU says the total number of participants has been dwindling since the 1990s, when the country's businesses and people began to suffer from the implosion of the storied bubble economy.

While some within the JRFU are preparing to make its league professional, as for the disputatious companies, they would like to submit the argument that rugby has helped to latch the "Inc." onto Japan Inc., that Japanese corporate culture is in many cases an extension of rugby culture, that the sport's core values are a successful business' core values.

World Rugby, the sport's governing body, identifies some of those values -- integrity, passion, solidarity, discipline and respect.

Fujio Mitarai, chairman of Canon, the office equipment and camera company, as well as of the Rugby World Cup 2019 Organizing Committee, advances this theory. "I particularly like the integrity" that the sport insists on, Mitarai said. World Rugby has its code of conduct, and says the integrity is "fundamental to maintaining honest and fair play in Rugby. "

The ninth Rugby World Cup kicked off on Friday in Tokyo, with Japan defeating Russia 30-10. The tournament, which runs through Nov. 2, is expected to bring five times as many foreign fans as there are players in Japan. They are expected to quaff a lot of beer -- another trait the rugby world shares with corporate Japan.

Rugby was first exported to Japan in the late 1800s along with other pieces of Western culture. It is said the game was initially played here by students at the distinguished Keio University before gradually becoming a "gentleman's sport" played by intellectuals.

The sport has since evolved on the archipelago in a distinctive way, with company teams comprised mostly of amateurs.

It is this very relationship that has allowed the nation's rugby community to uncover maxims and lessons that hold true in corporate life and sporting life. No wonder Japan maintains its commitment to the game.

Players from the Kobelco Steelers and Kubota Spears arrive for the Japan Rugby Top League's final game. (Photo by Tomoki Mera)

Toyota Motor, Yamaha Motor, Canon, Suntory, Kobe Steel, Panasonic and other major corporations run teams in the Top League. While some players are professionals and are paid accordingly, many of their teammates are corporate warriors with other jobs at the company. Takuya Kitade, a member of the national team, doubles as a salesman for Suntory.

Players who engage in their company's business are "good at judging how to use time," said Norifumi Nakajima, a former head coach for Panasonic. Many of these employee-athletes restructure their lives and jump on the career path once their playing days are over, Nakajima said.

Before they retire, it is not uncommon for these players to change into a suit immediately after a game and visit their clients. "Professional players learn a lot from their amateur teammates, who have to balance their jobs with the sport," Nakajima said.

While the companies own the teams, they are also the teams' financial supporters, buying up nearly 60% of all tickets. Ticket sales make up the bulk of the league's revenue. But the owners are not buying tickets as much as they are buying advertising. "The companies make lifetime customers through their rugby teams," said Munehiko Harada, a professor of sports management at Tokyo's Waseda University.

There are more direct benefits for the companies.

Think of rugby as the ultimate corporate retreat. "People who have experience in rugby tend to fully commit to their own work and fulfill their role," Yamaha Motor Chairman Hiroyuki Yanagi said. Yamaha has hired 158 employees as players since 1987, when the manufacturer started taking its rugby team seriously. More than half of these players remain dedicated Yamaha employees today, 19 of whom work overseas.

One, Yoshinori Sogabe, 35, a legend on the rugby field since his days at Waseda University, is now helping the company in its attempt to win over Indian motorcycle riders.

So dedicated are rugby players that Yamaha section chiefs now ask for new ones to be assigned to their divisions, Yanagi said.

Genichi Tamatsuka, a former rugby player at Keio University who went on to manage companies like Fast Retailing, famous for its Uniqlo clothing stores, and the Lawson convenience chain, can describe how Rugby skills transfer to the business world.

They have proved themselves especially useful when everything goes wrong. When this happens, Tamatsuka said, "I stay calm and observe the situation before coming up with a solution. Rugby brought me a strong mindset and never-give-up spirit."

Japanese companies became team owners during the country's economic miracle of the mid-1950s to 1970s. At first, the sports clubs were a kind of employee benefit, but they soon morphed into branding vehicles that showed off corporate strength. The boom came at the beginning of the 1990s, when the number of rugby players in Japan peaked.

The Nikkei 225 hit a record high on the final trading day of 1989, and the bubble economy imploded in 1990, forcing many companies to slash their budgets and discard their branding vehicles. Some sports, namely soccer and later basketball, would land on their feet with professional leagues of their own. But rugby remained a corporate league and reembraced its amateur spirit because, Waseda's Harada said, "the JRFU considers itself an amateur organization."

That might be about to change. Some JRFU officials intend to follow soccer and basketball and bring rugby into the ranks of professional Japanese sports in 2021, hoping to draw more regional fans and boost sponsorships in a bid to get away from its current reliance on the member companies.

Japan Inc. is no longer as ferocious as it once was. Its companies fell behind in the digital age but have since been restructuring and embracing diversity. Here, too, rugby is leading the way.

The Brave Blossoms -- the nickname of the men's national team is a play on Japan's much-acclaimed cherry blossoms -- includes 15 foreign-born players, almost half the full roster's 31 players. The number is up from 10 at the previous Rugby World Cup and two at the first such tournament in 1987.

The presence of overseas players is increasing in Japan's top league as well. Four of New Zealand's All Blacks will join the Japan Rugby Top League's Toyota, Panasonic, Kubota and NTT Docomo sides in January.

Dan Carter, a former New Zealand national team members, reportedly earns more than $1.2 million per year playing for Kobe Steel, also known as Kobelco.

"There is no prejudice from rugby fans about having foreign players," said Tetsuya Takeuchi, who leads JRFU's marketing team. "Rugby is not passport-based and is clearly demonstrating how a community shapes [itself] by accepting diverse cultures, which is what Japanese companies, universities and any communities are now facing."

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