The Brave Blossoms: is Japan among the world’s best?

Here’s an interesting question for trivia lovers: what country is the world’s leading try scorer in international rugby from?

The answer most likely to come to mind is New Zealand: the nation having been so dominant for so long and having produced so many prolific wingers, it seems obvious.

Obvious perhaps, but not correct. The right answer is Japan. Winger Daiskue Ohata played from 1996- 2006 and during this period crossed the whitewash 69 times in 58 tests. Despite this incredible achievement the fleet-footed Ohata’s name is not widely known amongst rugby fans and he is hardly a household name in his homeland.

Ohata’s relative obscurity is illustrative of the fact that rugby has very much been a minority sport in Japan since its introduction in 1866. In terms of team sports baseball and football have been far more popular, with fewer than a hundred thousand registered rugby players from a population of over a hundred million.

Whilst victory over South Africa in the 2015 tournament helped boost the sport’s profile and made a short-lived star of fullback Ayumu Goromaru, it has not fulfilled its potential and the Japan Rugby Football Union struggled to make the most of the shock win.

It was the Brave Blossoms’ success in reaching the quarterfinals, ably dispatching Six Nations stalwarts Ireland and Scotland whist playing a glorious brand of freeflowing rugby that sparked a surge of interest in the sport.

Japanese TV ratings for the final pool game against Scotland saw a staggering number of people tune in, with estimates suggesting that over half the country’s population saw Kenki Fukuoka break Scottish hearts and send his team through as the first Asian team to ever make the knockout stage.

For Japan early signs are promising. England have just agreed to play two tests against them in 2020, suggesting that this World Cup has served as a springboard to get matches against tier one opponents.

This is exciting, given that an England side has never played in Japan before and that the teams have only met twice before in the history of the game. The fact that England head coach Eddie Jones has Japanese heritage and used to coach the national side means these tests should be a major draw.

Japan as a market is extremely tempting for the cashstrapped governing bodies in Australia and New Zealand with talk abounding already of the Japanese joining the Rugby Championship next year. While this may cause a few problems in terms of travel for Argentina, the desire to include a wealthy country of one hundred million people in the tournament is justified.

It’s not just on the pitch that Japan have reached new heights. While Rugby World Cups have generally run smoothly, there seems to be a wide consensus that the hosts have been excellent in every facet of organising the tournament.

Stadia were packed throughout the World Cup, even for games involving the tournament’s minnows. Typhoon Hagibis resulted in the cancellation of several pool matches, but the tournament organisers reacted swiftly to ensure that the key fixture between Scotland and Japan could go ahead under very difficult conditions.

The Japanese public took their side to heart. National team rugby shirts sold out swiftly over the course of the tournament, resulting in several improvised body-art versions doing the rounds on social media due to shortages.

The public embraced visiting teams, with a viral campaign to teach them the national anthems of each nation proving a particular success.

This World Cup has seen the Japanese side break into the first tier of international rugby and become a force to be feared on the pitch. The continuing popularity of the game in Japan requires a serious grassroots effort by the JRFU to build on this tournament.

From now on, the national side could well be consistently competitive against teams from the Rugby Championship and Six Nations.


Image: Mnmazur via Wikimedia