1 Mar 2019

Japan faces roadblocks in growing rugby

11:32 pm on 1 March 2019

Japan, hosts of this year's rugby World Cup, appear set to be kneecapped by their own union in their lofty bid to bring a million new players into the game in the land of the rising sun.

Japan pulled off the biggest upset in World Cup history in 2015, beating the Springboks, but as Joe Porter writes from Tokyo, they'll need a even bigger miracle if they're to bring rugby into the mainstream of Japanese sport.

Amanaki Mafi of Japan celebrates at the final whistle of their historic Rugby World Cup win over South Africa.

Amanaki Mafi of Japan celebrates at the final whistle of their historic Rugby World Cup win over South Africa. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

The country has exposed hundreds of thousands of new people to the sport, but those participants were often involved in a one-off experience, and in reality, actual player numbers are on the slide.

World and Asia rugby have already met their target of one million new participants in the region, 460,000 of which are in Japan, but converting those participants into regular players, is a whole new kettle of fish and Japan faces the toughest challenges of all.

The chief executive of the Japan World Cup organising committee, Akira Shimazu, is confident they can do it.

"One of our goals through Rugby World Cup is to really reach new audiences, but also get more players in Japan. What we want to do is to reach out to the youth and the children and try to encourage them to be involved with rugby. The theme for the 2019 tournament, based on our goal, is going to be 'Rugby for tomorrow'."

Chief executive of the Japan World Cup organising committee, Akira Shimazu.

Chief executive of the Japan World Cup organising committee, Akira Shimazu. Photo: RNZ/Joe Porter

Japan though is a different beast to the rest of Asia, as Yokohama based journalist, Rich Freeman, points out.

"In Asia you're talking about a blank piece of paper. So you go into Laos, Vietnam, even certain areas of Thailand, and there is nothing there.

"So you can do it and there's a lot of great work being done, using rugby's traditional values, along with street kids. Last weekend in Thailand there was the Bangkok tens, run by a guy called Eddie Evans, an ex Canadian international, and they do an amazing amount of work with kids, who are orphaned, where they basically use rugby, the nutrition, the values that we learn on the field as rugby players to help and inspire them.

"They help to raise money for these kids, educate them, they're doing that in Vietnam, they're doing that in Laos.

"The problem with Japan is they've got a very conservative union, who don't want change, who still think it's 1899 and that will be a massive problem," he said.

Freeman, who's lived, played and reported on rugby in Japan for 20 years, said while more kids may have been exposed to the game, actual playing numbers are on the slide.

"In the present way it's structured it just doesn't work. Schools are losing rugby clubs big time.

"I'll give you an example, Saga prefecture last year, the high school tournament which decides which team then goes to the national tournament, a huge event that happens over Christmas and New Year, there were only two teams in the prefecture that could provide enough players, and the score was 132-nil. One team, I think it was from Niigata up at Hanazono, the national tournament, with just 19 players.

"Rugby is struggling, especially at school level, so they're going to have to change the way it's structured," Freeman said.

There's also been significant decline in the number of schools with rugby teams and there are no age-grade clubs whatsoever, bar the odd community based side.

Most kids have little to no opportunity to play on following primary school, unless they join one of a handful of rugby high schools, where they're required to commit to just one sport.

"If your school happens to have a rugby club, and the numbers are declining, then that's all you do. You do rugby 330-340 days a year, which is just ridiculous. So there's that issue," Freeman said.

"There's also the issue that basically because rugby is played at Junior High School or High School, if you're lucky to have a club, there is no age grade rugby. So once you get to 12 or 15, if you're not at a school that has a rugby club, there's no age grade rugby and that's going to be the biggest problem after the World Cup.

"You're going to have all these young kids saying, 'Wow I watched Beauden Barrett play and he did this, I want to play', but unless there are more clubs, like Koji's (Tokumasu) Shibuya Rugby Club, where are they going to go."

The Shibuya club run by Koji Tokumasu, a senior director on the organising committee, is one of just a few clubs regularly hosting tag rugby games, to introduce kids to the sport.

He said the Japan Rugby Union need to step up.

Koji Tokumasu, senior director at e Shibuya Rugby club.

Koji Tokumasu, senior director at e Shibuya Rugby club. Photo: RNZ/Joe Porter

"Every Sunday we have over 300 under 12's playing tag rugby and even if they don't have the opportunity to play at school they can play at our club. I'm hoping and confident that will increase, so the Japan Rugby Union and schools should be prepared to open the door when that happens."

And he said the Union needs to act quickly or they'll lose the momentum built by hosting the World Cup.

"Our Rugby Union and our rugby family need to work hard to make sure the excitement can last.

"Rugby is a hard sport in the sense you have to wear rugby boots and tackle. Why don't you just play with the oval ball, just touch rugby or street rugby? Any type is good at the beginning. Something I'd like to see more of is more rugby balls on the street and in school yards."

RNZ tried on several occasions to interview the Japan Rugby Union bosses about the challenges they face, and the changes they need to make.

I was ignored or denied each time.

If they keep their heads in the sand, the new players they hope to bring to the game, will fall through the cracks of a broken system.

- Joe Porter travelled to Japan with assistance from the [https://www.asianz.org.nz/ Asia New Zealand Foundation]​.