Japan Rugby

Japanese Rugby

Jason Coskrey

Lurking just beneath baseball and soccer in the national consciousness, the sport of rugby is hoping to make waves in Japan in the near future.

With the Rugby World Cup scheduled to hit the nation in 2019, the sport is fighting to gain more exposure in the Japanese media.

Promoting itself in a great untapped rugby market, the Japanese Rugby Football Union is hoping to use the buildup of the tournament and its aftermath to increase the number of domestic players by 160% and raise attendance by 200%.

Those are lofty goals, given the way baseball and soccer dominate the headlines. Meaning the Japanese national team will need to make waves on the international level outside of Asia to get people interested.

The national team, known as the Brave Blossoms, is the dominant squad in Asia, but hasn't been able to make a big splash outside of the region.

Brave Blossoms play in the International Rugby Board (IRB)-sanctioned Asian Five Nations and Pacific Nations Cup each spring, which provides a steady stream of competition which has aided the team's level of play.

Japan Rugby.

Rugby got an increased shot of exposure in November 2009, when historic powers Australia and New Zealand competed in the Bledisoe Cup at Tokyo's National Stadium.

The match, won 32-19 by the All Blacks, was part of an effort to promote the sport outside of its traditional boundaries and Japanese officials were all too happy to expose the game to a hungry Japanese crowd.

While Rugby doesn't always take center-stage on the Japanese sports landscape, the game has been around for ages.

It has been played in Japan since the 19th century, with the first recorded game taking place in Yokohama between British sailors in 1874. Japanese players began to routinely take part beginning in 1899 when the game was brought to Keio University.

Since then, rugby in Japan has continued to grow as more Japanese players begin to participate.

Japan Rugby Ground.
Japan v Scotland, June 2016.
Japan v Scotland, Toyota Stadium, June 2016

The sport got a big bump in popularity after World War II when Prince Chichibu, the honorary head of a number of athletic organizations, took an interest in the game.

Today, Japan is regarded as the Asian stronghold of the sport and boasts more than 120,000 active players.

The Top League (established in 2003) is the nation's professional league and features a number a foreign professionals, who play alongside Japan's top rugby players and add credibility and star power to the league.

Three-time World Cup veteran Stephen Larkham, who earned 102 caps for Australia and George Gregan, another Aussie and one of the most respected players in rugby, are just two of the high-profile foreign players presently active in the Top League.

The league was the brainchild of the late Hiroako Shukuzawa. The Tokyo native played the sport at Kumagaya High School and later for Waseda University.

Shukuzawa, who later became a banker, rising to the position of executive director of Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation, helped establish the league in order to aid the development of the sport in Japan.

The league launched with 12 teams and was expanded to include 14 clubs in 2006.

Japan Rugby.

The Top League crowns its champion in the Top League Play-off Tournament Microsoft Cup which is held after the season.

The knock-out tournament features four teams with the two winners of the semifinal matches vying for the title in the final.

The tournament began as a separate competition during which the top eight Top League teams met for the Microsoft Cup crown. It wasn't until 2007 that the event was integrated into the Top League.

The Kobe Steel Kobelco Steelers won the initial Top League title but the Toshiba Brave Lupus have been the class of the league since its inception.

The Brave Lupus have won four Top League championships, winning three straight from 2004-2006 and adding their fourth in 2008.

Based in Fuchu, Tokyo, the Brave Lupus have blossomed under the direction of coach Masahiro Kunda.

Kunda, a native of Gifu, was a hooker for the national team and served as the captain in the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Kunda is known for having an inventive approach to the game, though derided by critics as an unattractive style of play, which has served the Brave Lupus well during his tenure.

Top League teams also participate in the All-Japan Rugby Football Championships following the season. That event includes Top League teams, the top two university teams and the best club team.

Among amateur competitions are the Japanese University Rugby Union Championships and National High School Rugby Tournament.

The high school event is particularly successful, featuring over 1,200 teams from all 47 prefectures. Keiko Gakuen in Osaka has been the strongest team of the decade on the high school level, winning four straight high school titles from 2001-2004.

As 2019 approaches, Japanese rugby officials continue to find new ways to promote the sport in Japan. They're also hoping to also raise the domestic level of the sport in hopes of turning out stronger and stronger international sides as the World Cup buildup begins.

World Cup 2015

Japan had their best ever results at a Rugby World Cup at the 2015 tournament defeating South Africa 34-32, Samoa 26-5, USA 28-18 and losing to Scotland 45-10. Japan finished third in the group behind South Africa and Scotland. Star player, full back Ayumu Goromaru, won a move to play in Australia and a Buddhist statue at Seki Zenkoji Temple in Gifu Prefecture has been attracting scores of visitors who see a resemblance in the image to Goromaru's hand gestures before he attempts a kick at goal.

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