Japan’s Success at World Cup Buoys Hopes for Rugby at Home

Japan’s Success at World Cup Buoys Hopes for Rugby at Home

TOKYO — When the overlords of rugby a decade ago chose Japan to host this year’s Rugby World Cup, they hoped to spread the gospel of the sport beyond its traditional strongholds in Europe, Australia, South Africa and Argentina. A boost in participation in Asia, and maybe a few new sponsors and heightened interest from television broadcasters, seemed like realistic goals.

But few could have anticipated the roaring success of Japan’s team, which could rejuvenate the sport in a country where rugby has largely been limited to universities and old boys’ clubs. With victories over Ireland, Scotland, Samoa and Russia in the group stage, Japan became the first nation from Asia to win its group at a World Cup. The capstone was a defeat of Scotland on Sunday that sent Japan into the quarterfinal round for the first time.

There, Japan will face an even more formidable foe in South Africa on Sunday. The Brave Blossoms, as the Japanese team is called, will be tested like never before, and not only because the Springboks will want to avenge their shocking loss to Japan in the last Rugby World Cup four years ago. South Africa pummeled Japan, 41-7, in September in a warm-up match for this year’s tournament.

Still, the Japanese have been playing well, relying on the speed and skill of Yu Tamura, Kotaro Matsushima and Kenki Fukuoka, but also a group of foreign-born players. (Like many sports, rugby permits naturalized players provided they meet strict eligibility and residency requirements; more than a dozen members of Japan’s team, including Matsushima, who was born in South Africa, and the New Zealand-born captain Michael Leitch, who has lived in Japan since he was a teenager, qualified this way.) They also will have the home crowd on their side, a significant advantage in the knockout round.

Win or lose, though, Japan will have exceeded expectations by a wide margin. The Brave Blossoms have routinely filled the front pages of the country’s sports newspapers, and Japan’s group pool games have attracted healthy television viewership, with more than 40 percent of the country tuning in to see Japan’s 38-19 victory over Samoa. Overflow crowds have congregated by the thousands at watch parties in Tokyo and other cities, and not only to watch Japan.

“What’s been amazing to me has been the local fans,” said Joel Stransky, the hero of South Africa’s 1995 World Cup champions, who is now a television commentator. “The Japanese fans have come out in their droves to support all the teams here and to support the beautiful game of rugby union. They wear their Japanese shirts; they wear their Irish shirts, their Samoan shirts. They scream and shout for the underdogs. They applaud the tries. It has just been spectacular to be part of this.”

The larger question is whether the excitement created by World Cup will last beyond the tournament, which ends on Nov. 2. Sports leagues have tried for years to drum up interest in Japan, with mixed success. Major League Baseball routinely played exhibition and regular-season games in Japan in the 1990s and 2000s, but now comes less often. The N.B.A. returned to Japan this year after a 16-year hiatus, but only with preseason games. The N.F.L. stopped coming to Japan in 2005.

Soccer is a different story. Japan co-hosted the World Cup in 2002, helping increase the popularity of the domestic J-League, which now has three divisions, and drive youth participation in the sport.

World Rugby hopes to mimic that success, but indications are it will be a harder task. There are 10 times as many registered soccer players in Japan than there are rugby players. Rugby, versions of which were first played in the 1860s by expat Britons in Yokohama, has been most fervently played by the country’s elite colleges. After being largely shunned before and during World War II, the sport experienced a revival in postwar Japan, growing to about 300,000 players nationally at the end of the 1980s.

But declining birthrates, the rise of soccer and basketball and a lack of fields for rugby have eroded participation. There are roughly 100,000 rugby players in Japan today, and Japan’s professional rugby league is made up of company teams that provide an avenue for players to earn stable incomes and continue to play after their collegiate days end. The league has attracted well-established foreign players, including New Zealand’s captain, Kieran Read, but as a team sport, rugby still ranks far behind baseball, soccer, basketball and volleyball, and some parents worry about letting their children play collision sports.

“Japanese rugby union members are struggling with increasing the number of players, but the World Cup is a big chance for us to try to figure out how to get more children to start playing,” said Masayuki Kobayashi, who began playing rugby in high school in the 1960s and was on the national team in college. “Kids want to play, but parents became very concerned about rugby.”

Kobayashi said he hoped that a younger generation of leaders at the country’s Rugby Football Union will bring changes to training methods, which for years have focused on endless drills and practices instead of improvisation. As a result, Japanese teams have been technically proficient but not as talented at ad-libbing during matches.

“The Japanese rugby culture is totally different,” said Mike Galbraith, who has lived in Japan for decades and written extensively on rugby there. “It’s a kind of martial art, and it didn’t just start with rugby. And it’s more about the Japanese cultural approach to sport with extreme training and dedication.”

The Brave Blossoms will need to marshal all their energy if they hope to topple South Africa again. After beating heavyweights like Ireland and Scotland to advance to the knockout round, Japan wants to beat the Springboks again to show that their upset four years ago — perhaps the greatest in the history of the Rugby World Cup — was no accident.

“We’ve now made history,” said Leitch, Japan’s New Zealand-born captain. “We’ve managed to the get to the last eight. But what’s ahead of us is important.”

Joe Ritchie contributed reporting from Hong Kong.

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