10 October 2019
Rugby in Japan
Direct from the stands.
By Richard Pooley
“Arrai rai bureau! Tonga, Tonga!” Have the Japanese fallen in love with rugby? And why you should come to Japan for the Olympics.
I am in Japan. Shaw Sheet’s editors have given me leave to write about something other than France, Brexit and the extinction of life on Earth. Not that I have been able to escape all three entirely. They also begged me not to go on and on about the wonderful Japanese loos or the common sense of their ablutions. So, I won ‘t.
Yes, I have come to watch overgrown men try to seriously hurt each other for the honour of carrying a large egg-shaped ball over a white line. But only at two matches; one last Sunday in Kumamoto on the island of Kyushu, south-west Japan, the other next Saturday in the home of Japanese rugby, Yokohama, if Typhoon Hagbis allows (inevitably fans are calling it Haggis and telling the Scots it could blow their team home early). It’s an opportunity too to see friends, ex-colleagues and old clients. I used to run my London-based company’s Tokyo subsidiary in the early 1990s (fellow Shaw Sheet columnist, Lynda Goetz, was in Tokyo at the same time). After returning to the UK, I visited Japan twice or more a year on business, ending with a goodbye tour of clients in 2012. Time to go back, I thought, especially as it would give me a chance to visit Kyushu for the first time and take in a city whose tragic history has fascinated me ever since reading about it some thirty years ago.
But which national team do I support? I was asked exactly that by the young Frenchwoman sitting beside me on the airport bus into downtown Kumamoto. I explained my predicament: I’m English but have just lived for six years in France, where I remain a loyal supporter of my local rugby club, Brive. She was not persuaded I had a problem. She indicated the stocky, red-haired young man across the aisle with whom she was travelling. “He is from Manchester. I have lived there for three years. Tomorrow we will both support France against Tonga. But when it is France against England in Yokohama, he will cheer for England and I will cry for France. You must support England.” She then changed the subject and asked me what I thought of Brexit. As did every other French fan I met last weekend and I met a lot. There is no escape.
It was certainly strange to be sitting in a stadium on a balmy October evening in the sub-tropics watching a sport which most of the people around me, all Japanese, were probably seeing for the first time. In the hour before kick-off, the stadium’s two screens had showed films explaining some of the rules. But the British voice-over could not be heard above the chants of “Allez les Bleus!” and renditions of the Marseillaise which reverberated around the stadium. There were no Japanese subtitles. Once the game was under way, I could hear much discussion in Japanese as my neighbours puzzled over penalty decisions. English words familiar to any rugby fan could be discerned – “kurossing”, “notto binudingu”, “corrapsingu sucurumu”, “forawardu passu”. Lots of people had done their homework. Typically Japanese. It reminded me of when I had to explain such decisions to my eight-year old son at the first match he ever attended in Bath. I hadn’t a clue myself, of course. And soon discovered that the old sweats around me were little better at understanding why the ref had blown his whistle.
At the start of the match most of the Japanese seemed to be cheering on the French – “Arrai rai bureau!” – even some of those wearing the red and white of Tonga. Not surprising. I had watched many of the French fans in and around the city’s fanzone do their best to charm the locals. No drunken yobbery. Dressed as cockerels, draped in the tricolor, singing loudly but well, they chatted to one and all, oblivious to the universal incomprehension. Boys as well as girls flocked to be photographed with them and by them. The woman next door to me in the stadium had the tricolor painted on her cheeks. She had brought her two-year old daughter with her, who ten minutes into the match was fast asleep. She only woke up in the last ten minutes when the chanting around her, including from her parents, had switched to “Tonga! Tonga!” The underdogs were threatening to cause a major upset and beat the stuttering French. Perhaps the Japanese realised that five of their team were born in Tonga and another one was born in New Zealand of Tongan parents.
What idiot chose to label the Japanese team the Brave Blossoms? From Japanese mouths that becomes “Buray Burosomus!” The whole point of cherry blossoms is their delicacy and short life, which is hardly the rugby image. In the bar across from my hotel on Saturday evening the Japanese fans were bellowing “Nippon, Nippon!” or “Nihon, Nihon!” at the TV showing their team’s match against Samoa.
Will the Japanese enthusiasm for rugby last beyond the Brave Blossoms’ probable quarter-final defeat to South Africa, assuming they beat Scotland? After all, the Japanese are notoriously faddish. I think it will.
The national team will have gone further than ever before. Their conquering of Ireland almost matched the defeat of South Africa in “The Miracle of Brighton” at the last World Cup in 2015, which proved that they can do well outside Japan. They are now comfortably among the top ten teams.
Rugby is much more of a team sport than football and baseball. Indeed, to promote team building was the original reason that so many big Japanese companies created and sponsored their staff’s rugby teams. The top Japanese universities have long had strong rugby teams, a plus when company recruiters come looking for new graduates who can work well in teams. Adverts using rugby to promote energy drinks (playing on the Japanese admiration for someone with gaman – stamina and resilience), cars (strong and long-lasting but capable of quick acceleration) and any product or service which requires teamwork have been broadcast at all hours, not just when the rugby is on.
Forget the old “they’re too small” jibe. The Japanese have become bigger. When I lived here I had my own private air space on the Tokyo subway. But now many young Japanese men are at least my height – 1.8 metres (6 feet). Their national team still has lots of imports, noticeably the adored veteran captain, New Zealander Michael Leitch, and the unfortunately-named Wimpie van der Walt from South Africa. But Japanese are increasingly to be found in the scrum where the big men are.
It helps too that rugby is so clearly not a US import. Japanese have always given higher status to European imports than US ones: whisky; French and Italian food and wine; golf. There is also still that identification with the United Kingdom – an island nation, off the coast of a continent, with a royal family. They perceive the British as having similar values to their own – honesty, reserve, politeness. Rugby, not football (or soccer as they insist on calling it), looks and feels very British to the Japanese.
Thinking of going to the Olympics next year? Go, go! The Japanese are using the Rugby World Cup to test their big event organisation. The only problem so far is that some venues have run out of food. World Rugby had apparently warned the Japanese of the gallons of beer drunk by the average gaijin rugby fan. But not of their gargantuan, by Japanese standards, appetites. Nor of the wish of some of them to eat only vegetarian food. So, after the first weekend of matches we fans were all mailed with the news that we could take food (but not drink, not even water) into the stadia. The Japanese are notoriously slow at taking decisions. But when there is a danger of losing face, they can change a decision as fast as anyone.
The only problem I can see is the weather. I don’t know why but nearly every European or American I have met in the past 40 years, who has not been to Japan, seems to think that it is a small country which has a climate rather like Britain’s. I tell them to imagine picking Japan up and putting it back down along the eastern side of North America. Where would its most northerly point be? Montreal. And Okinawa down in the south? Miami. There has been much grumpiness from coaches and players and commentators about the heat and humidity of Japan in late Sept and early Oct. The rugby ball as a bar of soap is the cliché. Wait till those Olympic athletes start exerting themselves in the plus 30 degree heat and 90% humidity of Tokyo in late July and early August 2020 (same latitude as part of the southern border of South Carolina). But look on the bright side: no need to bring much more than hand luggage. The clothing required will be minimal. Your Japanese hotel can clean anything you want on the same day at extortionate rates but will also have a do-it-yourself laundry room for those who prefer to economise.
You will be safe too. You will understand nothing but yet find your way around the country, the cities, the food and the customs with ease. Because everyone wants to help you. Stand for a minute looking lost and someone will offer to take you by the hand to where you want to go. Literally. It’s happened to me twice in five days and I’m supposed to know my way around.
Don’t assume anything. The Japanese do things differently (and usually much better than we Europeans do them). Accept it. Go with the flow. You’ll love it.
Long queue to get train tickets? Don’t assume you’ll miss your train or that all available seats will have gone by the time you get to the front. Don’t head for the taxi rank. Taxis are too expensive and anyway no Japanese taxi driver I have ever met understands English, wants to understand English or can read our alphabet. Would you if by the time you were 14 you had to be able to know the meaning of, draw and chant at least 4000 different characters (kanji), 46 different hiragana symbols (gives context, flexibility and grammar) and 46 different katakana symbols (suitably angular for those vile foreign words that your ancestors allowed to pollute pure Nihongo)?
I joined the back of a queue in Kumamoto station which snaked out of the ticket office and across the wide central plaza. In Britain it would have taken me well over an hour to reach the put-upon ticket clerk. It took 20 minutes in Japan to get to the front, exchange my JR Rail Pass voucher for the Pass itself (absolute must-have for any foreign visitor) and book five train trips across half of Japan over the following week. All without the ever-smiling woman behind the counter speaking a word of English. She spent a minimum of 10 years learning English at school but her teacher almost certainly spoke no more than elementary English himself. However she knows English grammar better than you do and can understand far more than she can speak. So, just speak clearly and slowly but not loudly. Her hearing is fine.
Outside the same station I watched as a couple of heavily-laden French supporters took one look at the 100 metre-long queue for the tram (120 yen or 90 pence per person fixed fare to within 300 metres of any hotel a gaijin would be likely to stay in) and headed for the taxi rank (1000 yen or £8 before you start moving and a lot more by the time you get to your hotel). I went to the back of the tram queue, was on one within 10 minutes (because, mon ami, they arrive every 3 minutes and always on time) and could have sworn I passed that French couple in their taxi as the tram took me to a stop within 200 metres of my hotel. Mind you, it took me another 15 minutes to find it. Hotel symbols on Japanese city maps are seldom accurately located. But no worries. I looked lost. Straight away a Japanese man called Yuki took me to my hotel. Even better, he told me the rugby was being shown in the tiny cafe across the road and we met up again there in the company of French, Welsh, Japanese, Tongan and Kiwi fans for a night of laughter and banter (and just a little imbibing of Kirin).
Extinction of life on Earth? Well, no one has mentioned it so far here. But then “here” as I write is Nagasaki. That’s the subject of next week’s article.