The 2019 Rugby World Cup takes place in Japan, with the hosts raising the curtain on Friday in the opening fixture against Russia.
The locals pride themselves on their ‘omotenashi’, their hospitality, anticipating guests’ needs in advance and providing the utmost first-hand comfort and consideration. As the Michelin Guide has stated ‘every service is from the bottom of the heart - honest, no hiding, no pretending.’
This has certainly been proven upon the arrival of the 19 visiting nations vying to lift the Webb Ellis Cup, with some wonderful displays of warmth from the locals.
For the Wales national team, approximately 15,300 Japanese fans sang the Welsh national anthem at a World Cup training session in Kitakyushu, a city which isn’t actually hosting a game at the tournament. According to Rugby World Cup organisers, the crowd marks a new record for the stadium, and the local attendees sang Land Of My Fathers, wore Wales rugby jerseys and waved red dragon banners. They also sang the Welsh hymn Calon Lan.
Upon arriving in Nagasaki, Gregor Townsend’s side were warmly received by a large collective at the airport; young children posed with the Saltire on each cheek and waving the Scots’ national flag.
Scotland are one of Japan’s opponents in Pool A, facing each other in the last group game at the International Stadium in Yokohama on October 13.
The All Blacks were also given a rousing reception in Kashiwa, with footage showing scores of impassioned crowds meeting the players with phones clasped in their hands in scenes reminiscent of David Beckham’s arrival in the early 2000s. One young spectator was seen to be shouting the Maori phrase ‘Kia Ora’, the greeting for hello which literally translates as ‘be well’ or ‘be healthy’.
Demonstrating the reciprocal etiquette and respect which helps define the sport, the New Zealand team spent time with Japanese media to launch the ‘New Zealand says 39’ campaign, on behalf of the NZ Ministry of Foreign Affairs. ‘39’ - ‘san kyu’ in Japanese’ - is a symbol commonly used to mean ‘thank you’.
“We’re expressing New Zealand’s gratitude to Japan for looking after our team and supporters, and showcasing the warm welcome they can experience in return in New Zealand as a place to visit, study and do business,” says Stephen England-Hall, Tourism New Zealand Chief Executive.
At the 2015 World Cup in England, Japan produced a stunning 34-32 victory over two-time winners South Africa, further fuelling a fervent interest in the sport which continues to grow in popularity in the Land of the Rising Sun.
After South Africa touched down in Japan, 400 people turned out at the Kumagaya Stadium to see the Springboks, forming a choir with the town’s mayor Kiyoshi Tomioka to serenade the side. Kumagaya, north-west of Tokyo, takes pride in and promotes itself as a sport-invested region: “We hold athletes as our first priority.”
Japanese affiliation with the Pacific Ocean island-nation of Tonga is strong, stretching all the way back to 1976. Japan has a plethora of players of Tongan descent in their side due to the forging of the relationship between former monarch of Tonga, King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV, and the Daito Bunka University.
Earlier this year a couple from Kochi Prefecture, Tonga’s base for the Rugby World Cup, donated some clothes to the Tongan team after theirs went missing en route from Fiji.
“We had some issues with luggage when we got here so they flew us up some T-shirts and training shirts,” said Tonga coach Toutai Kefu.
New Zealand-born Tongan rugby union centre Siale Piutau has discussed the relationship between the two countries:
“The similarities in terms of the two cultures is the big one, in terms of respect and honour that the Japanese have for one another,” Piutau said. “We all enjoy coming here for those reasons as it feels like we are back home in Tonga.”