Japan a country of constant wonder and contradiction
Ex-Australia coach Robbie Deans confident country will host a memorable World Cup
How Japanese sports newspapers reporting on Japan’s win over South Africa in the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Photograph: Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty
Japan players celebrate their surprise win over South Africa during the 2015 Rugby World Cup Pool B match at Brighton. Photograph: Steve Bardens/Getty Images
Wisdom follows sacrifice. Deep into the wilderness, macaque country, where western civilisation could never thrive, where only Samurai and Buddhist monks could conceivably exist, there lives this temporarily forgotten man.
A rugby coach from Cheviot, the small town about the same distance north of Christchurch as Ota is of Tokyo Metropolis.
Unexpectedly, Robbie Deans was waiting at Ryumai station. Flip flops, combat shorts, beaming smile in the rain (disarmingly unlike the persona created by the Australian media).
“Unlucky with the weather,” he begins, “Come on, we’ll do a lap of the club, grab a coffee – that’s the secret to Japan, find a good barista! - then I’ll leave you off at Ota station for a straight shoot back to Tokyo Central.”
Life is good here?
“Oh, we love it. We love it as a destination. Without a doubt it is the best eating in the world.”
Japan, a place of constant wonder and contradiction.
Corporate tentacles invade every aspect of their culture. Work is life, but the family profits. Work feeds the soul, keeps them cleansed.
So we are told. This pseudo-utopian society provided enough evidence to almost make us believe.
“For example,” says Deans, “when I arrived at Panasonic [Wid Knights] we had 46 boys on the roster. Genuinely, 23 were amateur. So when they are not training they go to work.
“They are amateurs who train professionally but they have a job for life. We got a winger, Tomoki Kitagawa, who last year went over 100 Top League tries. Tomoki is a rock star in Japan. He is a high performer, played for Japan long ago, but he opted to remain amateur because he was smart enough to recognise that he didn’t have enough skills outside the game. He gets paid a lot less but he has a good job for life. The company will care for him and his family,” Deans pauses; “Forever.”
The Wild Knights come under the Panasonic Sports Division where baseball and volleyball have enormous reach, followed by rugby while the company also sponsors the soccer team playing at the stadium they own in Osaka.
“Their capacity for work is unprecedented,” Deans says not only of his players but the population at large. “You have to kick them off the training field. They just go forever.
“But you need to be obsessed with both your passion and life outside the game. You have to have both.”
Finding Deans took four trains, launching at Shimbashi station on the Ginza line at 8.03am, and landing three hours north of Tokyo. Hardly the wilderness, it’s rural – no samurai or macaque rearing their heads in this shower – but following a lubricated evening with the Japan 2019 World Cup Comms Dept, it made for a challenging trek.
But Mussolini has nothing on his former partners in that somewhat overly ambitious triumvirate.
“Transport facilities are unprecedented, you book trains by times, so people won’t even know a World Cup is on in two years time.”
It would require a cultural revolution for Ireland to construct such smooth means of moving from A to B. The Japanese take pride, it’s a matter of honour, to ensure everything runs on time.
Jokes, in Japan, need a punch line.
“We went to the 10s last year in Australia and the first bus that came to pick us up for the first training was 20 minutes late and the boys were confused. They thought they had done something wrong. The bloke rocked up like, ‘Just another day.’ That simply will not happen here.”
Audio translations ceased on the second train out of Tokyo, so did the air con, but that’s okay. Map your route (screen shot it). If the 10.29 to Ryomi leaves at 10:27 get off at the next stop. You’re on the wrong train.
All this bodes well for 2019, and Tokyo 2020.
On this Wednesday morning Deans presents a compact, easy-going club.
Only rehabbing players are shuffling about.
“Functional,” says Deans of the gym, introducing each and every member of the all Japanese support staff – conditioning coaches, chefs, cleaning lady scrubbing the bath – as we wander in and out of a pattering rain.
“Everyone will know this kid soon,” Deans nods over to Takuya Yamasawa, the outhalf recently capped against Korea and Hong Kong, as the 22-year-old shelters under the canopy until his lift home arrives.
Clearly, Deans is an open book. Remarkable, considering he could have the pick of clubs in France, England or the Irish provinces.
“Here’s the coaches office.” We enter a small room of desks and laptops facing each other. “When I first came everyone was facing the far wall,” he laughs. “Changed that.”
This is a far cry from the monosyllabic responses journalists encountered after defeats in Dublin, Eden Park and Sydney when it seemed like the weight of failure was tightening a vice around his head.
“Nah, I was calm inside,” says the 57-year-old over double shot lattes.
“I was no different than I am now. I was in my reality. That might have been your perception. The way you interpreted.”
But a coach’s lot, it can be a horrendous unending pursuit; when the players rest they prepare, when the game happens the stress must be suffocating.
“It’s a great job! You choose that uncertainty. Like, my daughter competes, she’s a rower [at Yale University], and the critical point for anyone in a competitive industry like that is to embrace the uncertainty. Once you embrace the uncertainty you can focus on what’s important . . . You enter knowing you can lose. You are not alone in that.
“Stagnate and you’re gone, sure, but rugby is the greatest team sport alive. Show me another game in the world, that caters for everyone, like it?”
This attitude is remarkable considering his back catalogue. The man who was supposed to succeed Graham Henry as All Blacks coach in 2008, who Steve Hansen worked under at Canterbury in the late 1990s, went another way.
That path grinded to a halt after Warren Gatland’s Lions toppled Australia in the 2013 series.
“When I finished with the Wallabies I always thought, ‘Well, we’ll go to France at some point’ because I played there and Penny is a French teacher.
“I played with Grenoble in the 80s so that seemed inevitable, and still may be at some point but I have history with Panasonic. The first time I have encountered them I was with the Crusaders, so I went up and did a camp with them on the Gold Coast. They were called Sanyo then. Years ago now. They were bottom of the first division but we maintained contact so I already knew a lot of the people before we came.
“So it was easy. Also, we had one child in New York, one child in London and one child in Sydney. This was the hub.
“We came up here, enjoyed the people, enjoyed the place, enjoyed the rugby and there is a lot going on here. There is a lot happening with the 100 year celebration with Panasonic next year, the World Cup, the Olympics so...”
David Pocock has been at Panasonic and is coming back after a stint with the Rhino guards in Zimbabwe, as part of the Wallaby force of nature’s self-imposed rugby exile.
“He’s easy to coach because he’s got balance. He’s got interests outside the game. He fits in superbly here because when he works he works, he is very intense about what he does.
“The Japanese are very circumspect on foreigners. If you don’t turn up and put the work in they will just dismiss you. They expect the same level of intensity that they bring, and that’s fair.”
Deans espouses the philosophies of Panasonic founder Konosuke Matsushita – a man who realised, while trying to distribute bicycle lamps to wholesalers in the 1920s, that a superior product to anything else in the market can still become irrelevant if he could not sell the product.
The Japanese insult easily but a westerner could spend his entire stay oblivious to this fact.
“Open yourself to their world because it is unique, but fascinating. This is the most orderly population you will ever encounter. Safe. Clean, unbelievably so, just walk through Tokyo and it is clear everybody takes pride in how the place looks. If you drop something it will be frowned upon. I once left a bottle behind me on the bus, my God did I hear about it and that’s fair. So they live it.”
They do not seem ready to host a Rugby World Cup. Even their successful bid proved a mirage when it was revealed in 2015 that the primary stadium would not be completed in time due to spiralling costs, as Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe made it clear that the Tokyo Games were the priority.
“This is the challenge for the World Cup, there is an Olympics coming the next year so they are in the shadow of that potentially.”
But increased efforts to welcome the world are evident; more English in the subways, more support people to help with movement.
“They’ll be ready. They don’t like to fail,” says Deans.
That leaves one outstanding problem – rugby’s legacy.
“The biggest challenge is they still have amateur governance,” says Deans who expressed surprise on learning about the IRFU’s tardy departure from this state of existence with the appointment of David Nucifora in 2014.
“That’s the step that needs to be taken because the interest in the game has grown enormously since 2015. Victory over South Africa was the trigger.
“It has been corporately driven but that’s the entire Japanese society – everyone is linked in some way through the work place. So the corporations take an interest, it is very family orientated. They take an interest in the people that work for them. It goes beyond just the office.
“Rugby in Japan is not unlike football in the States. University rugby used to get the biggest crowds. The administrative positions are anointed through that vehicle and they retain those connections. There is a corporate element but it is not complete. That is the step they have to take; they have to evolve into a professional body.”
Japan could learn from the IRFU. Learn from Devin Toner.
“Japan don’t grow such players either but if the right systems are in place they will find them.”
In the meantime they will naturalise men like Sam Wykes and Luke Thompson.
“They are evolving in the way they play because of the way they prepare. Historically, it was very prescriptive. You watch them train and they were world beaters. Get into a game, bit of resistance, and they weren’t so good on the spontaneity, on decision making. But they are smart enough to see another way.
“Physiques are improving because they are putting in the work. That’s the influence of Eddie Jones.”
Victory over the Springboks was Japanese rugby’s version of Stuttgart ’88.
“It put rugby on the map, permanently. There was already a passion for the game. It has always been here. High School rugby is on TV. So is University rugby. Now there is more Top League.
“But that game took it from having a presence to having a profile. Twenty million watched Japan beat South Africa. This is obviously what appeals to Sanzaar; on average, a typical Super Rugby weekend it was 247,000 viewing figures.
“Then the Top League started and routinely we had 7-10,000 at Chichibu stadium. In the first round after the World Cup? Not a spare seat. 26,000. We play in obscure places all over the country and the supporters were 15 deep, waiting around the bus, behind barricades, just to see the players.
“It was just: Boom!”
Now, for actual progress, the Japanese rugby union must vote for their own demise.
“That’s their challenge because there is potentially a void. There is going to be massive interest. They will have to make the most of that. I am confident the event will be great.
“Their biggest challenge is governance. To make the most of that interest you need people who have those skills around commercialism.
The administration has to get outside their comfort zone and make sure they cater for the future and not just enjoy the moment and walk away.”
“We will look hard for training bases that are not too far away from where we are domiciled. One of the things is the unpredictability of travel times. We went to training and it took 45 minutes, we went today and it took 25 minutes and on the way back it was 20 minutes.
So, trying to measure your day and stick to rigid timetables is going to be a bit complicated. We are going to have to build in flexibility into our day.”
“They are incredibly polite to each other. . and respectful – whether it is a bin man or owner of the hotel. They all treat each other the same. Incredibly tidy. I haven’t seen a scrap of dirt. So it is a little bit different. Dublin is a little more rugged!”
NEC Green Rockets coach.
“They will put on a great tournament. As you have probably found the transport system is second to none. Society in general is incredibly organised. Add to that it is an extremely safe country and it all makes for a great tournament. They have world class coaches at the Sunwolves and international level so I think they will continue to improve in the next couple of years.”
Japan lock, 62 caps.
“I think Japan will run a great World Cup. They do events better than most. The team will be competitive but they will have a lot of pressure on them. Got a fair bit of work to do but they will turn up.”
Japan 2019 by numbers
20 million Japanese watched the Brave Blossoms beat the Springboks at the 2015 World Cup (25 million watched them beat Samoa two weeks later).
1.8 million – targeted tickets to be sold for 2019.
400,000 – people expected to visit Japan for Rugby World Cup.
€110 million – tournament fee for World Rugby to guarantee tournament goes ahead.
110 – Staff in World Cup offices in Tokyo (set to rise to 300).
€51 – for deluxe capsule room in Tokyo.
70 percent – anticipated increase on the 122,800 people currently playing rugby in Japan (figure includes Tag Rugby).