With Rugby World Cup success, Japan have become adept at saying nothing

Against all odds, rugby is now very much in the spotlight thanks to team's exploits

Japan’s players celebrate beating Scotland. Photo: William West/Getty Images

Japan’s players celebrate beating Scotland. Photo: William West/Getty Images

 

Against all expectation, the national rugby team has become big in Japan. Five days out now from what is the biggest game in the history of Blossoms rugby and there is mild consternation when several members of the team – scrumhalf Kaito Shigeno and winger Ataata Moekiola – show up at the Otani Gardens Hotel, not far from the Imperial Palace, and begin to answer questions.

The Otani Gardens is not so much a hotel as a self contained town; about the size of Athlone but with many more decorative water works, fewer roundabouts and nothing like as many brilliant pubs. The big room on the fifth floor is packed and to the dismay of the sizeable western media presence in the room, the interviews are conducted entirely in Japanese. There is no translation. So maybe the most intriguing question of the day, delivered in English and enquiring as to what was meant by the recent suggestion that Japan would need to evoke the “dark side” of their game if they are to have any hope of finding their way through the heavy artillery and highly pumped defensive artillery that South Africa will bring to them, was also returned in the local tongue. It was completely fair. The Japanese knew what they were doing here. Half their team is either fluent in English or in both languages but they chose to leave those players off the roster.

On Monday, the Springboks had unleashed a charm offensive on Tokyo, paying detailed tribute to the friendliness and enthusiasm with which they had been greeted throughout the country. South Africa will go into the quarter-final as heavy favourites and the process of softening up the host team started there and then.

Japan players and staff bow to their fans. Photo: Jae Hong/AP Photo
Japan players and staff bow to their fans. Photo: Jae Hong/AP Photo

But something curious has happened to the Japanese as this tournament has progressed. Before they played Ireland, their public pronouncements were defined by a kind of unguarded self-belief that seemed misguided and even naïve. Their promises would have looked foolish had Ireland, as everyone expected, turned up in Shizuoka and duly won. Instead, they backed their words up with the win that electrified local interest in the tournament and put the Japan team in the driving seat to emerge from their group. And since that moment, they have slowly fallen into line with the caution and measured remarks of the other leading teams of the World Cup. They quickly became adept at saying nothing. And by saying it in Japanese, they left the majority of outside observers completely in the dark anyway.

But even before the quarter-final has been played, Japan have presented one of the enduring dilemmas for the custodians of international rugby union. Already, they have played their part. Earlier on Tuesday morning, the figureheads of World Rugby sat down in another conference room located right beside Tokyo’s Olympic Museum. After a fraught weekend, overwhelmed by the typhoon that raged through parts of the mainland, the tournament has recovered its equilibrium. When the Japan-Scotland game appeared to be in jeopardy, forcing a cancellation that would have eliminated Gregor Townsend’s team without allowing them to fight for their skins in the closing group game of Pool A, the organisers could do nothing but accept the accusations that cancelling the game would compromise the integrity of the entire tournament.

But Sunday morning arrived sunny and dry. With six hours to spare, it was confirmed that the game in Yokohama would go ahead as planned. After a weekend when parts of Japan were ravaged, when lives were lost and tens of thousands of homes were destroyed, the stadium was full. The team was ready. It was, through the pain, a celebration.

“There are members of the staff who slept in the venue to make sure they could start assessing the impact,” said Alan Gilpin, the tournament director about the efforts made to ensure the game was played.

“There were people working whose houses were destroyed that day.”

He said it as an aside in a conference that went on for 40 minutes and it was a phrase that conjured up all kinds of images. It is staggering to think that there were volunteers who showed up at the stadium in Yokohama to carry out their duties just hours after having their homes either gravely damaged or, as was detailed, completely destroyed by the storm. You hear about the Japanese code of honour and conduct on a daily basis but to have the selflessness and composure and the discipline to turn up, to put on the volunteers uniform, to smile and direct the fans seems beyond the call of any reasonable duty. And then the Japanese team went out and gave another thrilling exhibition of their interpretation of the game.

Their deliverance, both on and off the field, illuminates the dilemma for rugby in trying to expand the number of elite countries playing the sport. Bill Beaumont, the chairman of World Rugby, pointed out that Japan have been building towards this month since they were awarded the tournament a decade ago.

Japan scrum-half Kaito Shigeno during training ahead of the Rugby World Cup quarter-final against South Africa. Photo: William West/Getty Images
Japan scrum-half Kaito Shigeno during training ahead of the Rugby World Cup quarter-final against South Africa. Photo: William West/Getty Images

“There’s been unparalleled emotion around the country which certainly inspired the team. Japan is a proud nation, desperate to play the game and prove they are worthy of sitting at the top table. If I was the treasurer of any country you would want Japan to come and play as it would attract a lot of spectators to watch an attractive team and incredible style which relies on pace and precision.”

The big issue now is how to get them involved in the kind of constant high-quality completion which the Six Nations guarantees. Ian McGeechan, the former Scottish coach, has called for their inclusion in either that tournament or the Rugby Championship. But was that just a rush of blood? Already, with just eight countries left playing in Japan, rugby’s footprints here have become more faint. A winner will be crowned on November 2nd and the very next day, the circus will leave Tokyo. Winter will come in and the city’s civic and sporting consciousness will immediately focus on Japan. So whether this is a momentary high in Japan’s uneven rugby tradition or the beginning of a new era remains to be seen. If they can manage the impossible on Sunday, though, the conversation about what to do with Japan will become louder.

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