Japanese fans cheer their team during the opening match between “Russia and Japan” at the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Tokyo on September 20, 2019. Japan proved to be too good for Russia, winning 30-10 in the opening match. Photo: AFP/The Yomiuri Shimbun

The Brave Blossoms did not win the tournament, but Japan’s first hosting of the Rugby World Cup, which ended Saturday after a month of on-pitch action and off-pitch amicability, proved a smashing success on virtually every level.

Japan’s team enjoyed a sensational winning streak, fighting through to the quarter-finals for the first time. Fan zones saw record attendances and Japan went rugby crazy with almost half the nation becoming momentary rugby fans, according to TV viewing figures.

On the hosting side, everything – apart from one unwelcome guest, Typhoon Hagibis – went well, from superb hardware and organization to friendly, cheery locals.

The big question – and one that will be very much on the minds of World Rugby, which seeks to push the game in massively populated, TV-ratings rich Asia – is whether Japan’s love affair with the game will prove to be a one-night stand or the start of a long-lasting relationship.

Regardless of that, looking ahead to next year’s Tokyo Olympics, the Rugby World Cup proved that when it comes to hosting international sporting events, Japan – despite a steep language barrier and a reputation for being cool toward foreigners – is playing in the premier league.

David-san versus Goliath-san

It was the first time the Rugby World Cup had been held in Japan, or in Asia, since the competition was inaugurated in 1987. As recently as late August, interest in the Brave Blossoms was still low.

In a land where sumo and baseball dominate tabloid and TV sports coverage, rugby has never been particularly popular. It is considered a little too dangerous, a little too brutal.

Only now have many Japanese been awakened to the fact that rugby matches are not won by brawn alone, but that tactics speed, skill and stamina can pave the way for victory: David-san can topple Goliath-san.

When Jamie Joseph, the New Zealand-born coach of Japan’s national rugby squad, held a press conference at Tokyo’s Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan on August 29, the attendance was sparse. “We are a tier-2 team, but I think we have a team that can make the top eight for the first time,” Joseph said on the day. “I am trying to create a realistic expectation for the team.”

When the games kicked off in Tokyo on September 20, the odds facing the home team – the only Asian team in the 20-nation tournament – were steep. Joseph seemed reasonably confident that the Blossoms could beat Russia in their opening game. But Ireland? Scotland?  Those victories seemed out of the question.

Yet Japan had surprised the world before, winning against powerhouse and current world champions South Africa in Brighton during the previous World Cup, held in England in 2015. That upset was so amazing that it was this year made into a feature film, The Brighton Miracle.

According to the blurb, the movie tells the story of what is “… regarded as the greatest sporting upset in history,” as Japan, “the team with the worst record in rugby World Cup history,” go into play against two-time champions South Africa.

“It’s a story of people with persistence and tenacity who dared to believe, and in doing so conquered an unbeatable foe and gave hope to millions.”

Well, perhaps. Among an only mildly interested public, hopes were hardly stratospheric. It was possible the home team would be humiliated.

In an interview published prior to the competition in a children’s magazine Shogaku 8nensei (literally, “Grade 8 Magazine”), veteran scrumhalf Fumiaki “The Small Giant” Tanaka explained why he thought Japan could do well.

“Yes, even though I’m short in stature, I want to show the people of Japan how I can go up against much larger players,” he said in the interview. “I want people to see our team’s ‘weapon,’ which is speed. Have faith in our extremely swift playing.”

In the event, that faith would not be betrayed.

Japan breed niwaka fans

To mounting national excitement, Japan won four times in a row, surpassing expectations all the way. First, Japan beat Russia 30-10, then it overcame Ireland 19-12, then the Blossoms toppled Samoa 38-19, then came the glorious win over Scotland, 28-21.

With each victory, the popularity of the game surged. A new breed of rugby fan appeared: those who barely understood the rules, and proudly called themselves niwaka fans. Niwaka refers to shallow, fickle or feint levels of interest or activity in something.

But with self-depreciating humor, they were not ashamed of their lack of knowledge of the game. Popular T-shirts appeared with the inscription RUGBY NIWAKA DE GOME, or  “Pardon me, I’m a newbie rugby fan.”

In fact, T-shirt makers had a heyday as a quarter of a million official Japanese team jerseys were sold. Visiting fans, clearly enjoying the local scene, were constantly spotted and filmed wearing them. And when Japan played Scotland, in a nation of 126 million, more than 54 million people, or nearly half the population, watched the game on TV.

Of course, it had to end.

Japan’s victory charge was stopped in the quarter-finals when it lost 26-3 against eventual champions South Africa. But by then Team Japan had risen to number 8 in the world rankings: Joseph’s mission had been accomplished. No team, henceforth, will regard the Blossoms as a pushover.

A more open, inclusive Japan?

Some critics point out that, under rightist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the nation’s latent xenophobia has been quietly stoked for political gain. Not so in rugby. The Brave Blossoms have become a symbol of internationalization.

Many Japanese periodicals pointed out that a large number of the foreign imports on the team had become nationalized Japanese citizens, and the vernacular media coverage of the team was relatively inclusive, rather than focused exclusively on the Japanese players.

British writer and Japan expert William Horsley made some pertinent observations in an article, How the Japanese Won the World’s Heart as Rugby World Cup Hosts.

“As a society Japan has long been reluctant to integrate people of other ethnicities, but the multi-ethnic Brave Blossoms team has emerged as a symbol of a different Japan, which has made national heroes out of every member of the squad,” he noted.

“I was struck by the impact of the great invasion by so many foreign fans on the consciousness of ordinary Japanese people … It has felt at times this autumn as if a love affair has blossomed between Japan and an outside world that its people often prefer to keep at armʼs length.”

Looking good for Tokyo 2020

In general, Japan and the visiting barbarians got along well. Tourists faced few problems, the beer did not run out and rugby fans proved not to be the football hooligans that some police had expected.

The Canadian and Namibian teams helped clean up after Typhoon Hagibis hit in the middle of the tourney, generating both goodwill and good publicity for the game.

That goodwill was more than reciprocated. The friendly ambiance was captured in the face of a Japanese fan who made global TV news after the Japan-Scotland game– though wearing a Japanese jersey, he had painted his face in the Scottish colors.

Rugby could well be the long-term winner.

On October 30, former captain Toshiaki Hirose, who skippered the national rugby squad between 2012 and 2013, expressed his delight with the new attitude people were taking towards rugby.

“I’m so glad that the wonderfulness of the sport and its value have been communicated to the people,” he said at a press conference. “What comes next is important to make sure that it isn’t just a transient boom.”

How far World Rugby and Japanese rugby authorities will be able to push the sport forward in Japan in the months to come remains to be seen. But looking ahead, the overall excellence of the tournament bodes well both for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and rugby in Japan. Those countless niwaka rugby fans might become real fans someday.

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