Japan’s rise as a rugby union power has surprised and delighted many in the 2019 Rugby World, but in reality, it shouldn’t. It has been a long time coming.
The sport has been played in Japan for more than 100 years and the country has the fourth most rugby union players in the world. They have a history that goes all the way back to Yokohama in 1866. Started by English diplomats and soldiers, at the turn of the century it was introduced into universities and started to grow in the 1920s.
The sport expanded and was embraced by many members of the Japanese royal family. But the dawn of World War II and a fascist Japanese government that was hostile to rugby union, saw that growth affected.
Encouraged by universities and large companies, rugby slowly took off around the country in the 1950s. And in 1968 Japan beat the Junior All Blacks, in 1971 England toured the country for the first time and in 1989 Japan defeated a Scotland side missing nine British Lions. The Brave Blossoms competed in the first-ever Rugby World Cup, in 1987, but lost all three of their Pool games.
In the next World Cup in 1991 Japan defeated Zimbawawe, but it took them another 16 years to register a point at the tournament, with a 12-12 draw with Canada in Bordeaux in 2007. The 2000s were a key period for the 15-man code in Japan and where it made huge inroads.
Firstly, in 2003 the Top League was created. It was Japan’s first nationwide professional league and continues to today. Secondly, in 2005 former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori was appointed the president of the Japan Rugby Football Union. As a heavy-hitter he helped the sport get political clout, ending with the hosting rights to stage the World Cup this year.
Then in 2007, former-All Black John Kirwan was appointed head coach. Though his four-year tenure was controversial, he did help lift national team standards and professionalism. Kirwan brought a number of overseas-born players into the Brave Blossoms set-up, which made the team more competitive and again lifted standards more.
But perhaps the biggest change came in 2011 when Eddie Jones replaced Kirwan. He brought in a playing style more suited to Japan, focused on fast rucks and speed of play, and championed the development of local players. As a native speaker and with split Japanese and Australian nationality, Jones understood the local culture and its uniqueness intimately.
The current England boss took the Brave Blossoms to crazy, new heights, leading them to their famous 2015 upset of South Africa. When Jones left to join England, Kiwi Jamie Joseph took over.
Joseph has further built on Jones’ good work and has been helped by the introduction of the Sunwovles, a Japanese rugby team, into the Super Rugby competition. Playing week-in-week-out against Kiwi, Australian and South African opposition has helped Japanese players improve and develop.
Where once Japan relied heavily on players born in New Zealand and the Pacific Islanders to play for the national team, that is no longer the case. In this tournament, only 12 of their 31-man squad was born outside Japan. The stars in the Brave Blossoms are the likes of wingers Kotaro Matsushima and Kenki Fukuoka, fly-half Yu Tamura and hooker Shota Horie.
Joseph has been fortunate to have his players in camp since January, allowed to prepare perfectly leading into this World Cup. The cohesion and understanding of the team has improved, and they have worked hard on Japan’s defensive limitations. They have also done a ton of research and clearly exploited the weaknesses of all their opponents.
“We wanted to attack certain areas and certain players to try and get in behind because we felt when we did that we would put pressure on them there,” Joseph said.
“Trusting the plan is what saw us through. The players need to take the credit for trusting each other, trusting what we had trained for and planned. That was the difference in the end.”
Belief in themselves and their own ability has also been a crucial factor in Japan’s impressive rise.
“This is great for Japanese rugby, for rugby in Asia and for tier-two rugby,” captain Michael Leitch said.
“First we have qualified for the quarter-finals and now we are shuffling the goalposts (of what can be expected). The biggest reason is the belief, that is the trigger. Since 2011, the opponents we have played have been stronger and stronger. We have played more tier-one nations and played in Super Rugby.”
Already Japan have knocked off two tier-one countries in Ireland and Scotland. In the quarter-finals they will face the Springboks, the team they knocked out four years ago. They will not fear South Africa, as confidence in the land of the Rising Sun is only set to increase. Their time is now.