Attending live games, Japan, Passions, Rugby, Rugby History, Rugby World Cup, The History of Japanese Rugby, Top League, Travel, TRAVELLING JAPAN, University Rugby

Rugby in Japan?

The rugby world knows little about Japanese rugby and how popular the sport is in the land of the rising sun. When you think about rugby, Japan doesn’t necessarily come to mind. However, contrary to this bias, the host nation of this year’s 2019 Rugby World Cup (RWC) has a rich rugby history. This years RWC is being played in Asia for the first time, which is very exciting for world rugby. In this post I explore the origins of rugby in Japan as well as the rugby structures present in the country.

Host Country/ContinentYear
New Zealand & Australia1987
Europe1991
South Africa1995
Wales 1999
Australia 2003
France 2007
New Zealand 2011
England 2015
Japan2019
France 2023

Figure 1: showing host nations and years of rugby world cups.

Created by Joshua Parsons.

The history of rugby in Japan

Rugby was first played in Japan in 1866, when the first Rugby Club in Japan was founded called the Yokohama Foot Ball Club. Rugby was played in Japan before big rugby playing nations such as France, New Zealand and South Africa. The only other places with a longer history are Australia and The British Isles. The Yokohama Foot Ball Club was the first ever Asian rugby club. The establishment of Yokohama Foot Ball Club came about due to over a thousand British troops who were stationed in the area. Many had played Rugby at school in England. The large number of troops made it easy to play as back in those days 40 players were needed to play a game. This was the foundation of rugby in Japan and is also the untold history of how the game started in the land of the rising son.

Scene of a rugby game in Japan.
Source: Harper’s 1874, Illustrator unknown

The father of Japanese rugby

The Japanese began playing rugby at Keio University in 1899. Ginnosuke Tanaka and Edward Bramwell Clarke introduced the great game to the men of classes they taught at the University. The University played their first official game in 1901 against expatriates of the Yokohama County Athletics  team. The team established fixtures against other clubs and soon the sport grew in Universities. This lead to the first inter-university game being played between Doshisha and Waseda Universities in 1923. The early 1920’s saw rugby grow rapidly in Japan, having over 60 000 players and 1 500 clubs. Tanaka is now remembered as ‘the father of Japanese rugby’. The birth of rugby in the land of the rising son led to the first ever Japanese tour in 1930. The national team traveled to Canada and had great success winning 6 games and losing 1. The ‘Brave Blossoms’ have participated in every RWC since its inception in 1987.

A picture of Ginnosuke Tanaka
Source: Wikimedia Commons

How popular is rugby in Japan today?

Japan is the fourth biggest rugby playing nation in the world with a population of 122 872 rugby players as well as having 3 631 official clubs. The national side nicknamed The Cherry Blossoms or The Brave Blossoms are ranked 11th in world rugby. Although rugby is only the 5th most popular sport in Japan they have a competitive domestic league called Top League. Top League draws players from many strong rugby nations. There are well known players such as Daniel Carter and Matt Giteau who have had stints playing in Japan.

Vlog by The Imbiber published on YouTube

University rugby in Japan

Rugby is popular at Universities around Japan, which participate in The All-Japan University Rugby Football Championship. The championship kicked off in 1964 and currently there are currently 16 universities competing. The most successful University in the competition is Waseda University who have won 15 Championships. The final is usually well attended having close 40 000 spectators as of 2005. The University rugby culture in Japan is very competitive. University teams often play against professional teams, however there is a gulf in class between the two levels.

Video published by World Rugby on YouTube

Why will the RWC be special?

Japan is an exciting new frontier for world rugby fans as all the world cups to date have been hosted by top tier nations of rugby. This new frontier could open a new dimension and will help grow the game in Asia. The expansion of rugby into this new realm, which most orthodox rugby supporters know very little about is one of general excitement. A ticket to Japan will be a prized possession come 20 September 2019.

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