Japan’s Twickenham cannot wait to host World Cup
Hanazono stadium in Higashiosaka is considered Japanese rugby’s spiritual home
Hanazono stadium ahead of Japan’s match against a World XV last month. Photograph: Getty Images
While Japan’s players celebrated their stunning 34-32 victory over South Africa at the last World Cup, the cameras briefly cut to a middle-aged man, swathed in a Japanese flag, shedding tears of joy and disbelief that his compatriots had just pulled off the biggest upset in the tournament’s history.
As the Brave Blossoms return to English soil, this time against England at Twickenham on Saturday, Daisuke Komura’s eyes are perfectly dry but the Hinomaru flag-cum-poncho is on display again.
“I’m famous for crying at the end of the match, but to be honest the tears started as soon as the national anthem started playing,” says Komura, a 61-year-old Osaka native who runs a golf club in nearby Mie prefecture. “At the end, even the South African fans were congratulating us. That’s what makes rugby so amazing – that sense of community.”
Behind him, the pitch at Hanazono stadium in Higashiosaka, in the eastern suburbs of Osaka, is bathed in autumn sunshine, the newly laid hybrid turf part of a $7.3m facelift to prepare the ground for four first-round World Cup matches: Tonga’s games against the United States and Argentina, Italy against Namibia and Georgia against Fiji.
As the country’s oldest dedicated rugby stadium, Hanazono is considered Japanese rugby’s spiritual home, along with Chichibunomiya stadium in Tokyo. Built in 1929, Hanazono has hosted 30 internationals and, since 1963, the annual national high school rugby championship.
The home ground of the Top League side the Kintetsu Liners would never have been built had it not been for Prince Chichibu, a rugby fanatic, who was travelling by train to a shrine in nearby Nara when he was struck by the amount of vacant land along the line. He suggested to a local railway executive that a rugby stadium might bring more people to the area given the sport’s growing profile in prewar Japan.
Komura, who played at Hanazono as a university student, is not the only connection the ground has with England. The original structure was modelled on Twickenham, but lost the steel roof over its main stand to Japan’s war effort in 1943. The pitch area was used to train pilots and, later, to grow crops, before the stadium was taken over by US occupation forces who turned it into a makeshift American football pitch.
In 1992, Hanazono marked the return of a roof by hosting a match between Japan and Oxford University. Last month, it underwent yet more changes – including the addition of more comfortable seats, floodlights and a giant screen – in preparation for the World Cup.
Last month it hosted a Japan XV exhibition match against a World XV, with the home side losing 28-31 after a late comeback. “With its long history … and as the home of Japanese high school rugby, Hanazono holds a special place in the hearts of all Japanese rugby fans,” Akira Shimizu, president of the Japan world cup organising committee, said after the match.
“I am delighted to see just how fantastic the stadium looks after the extensive renovation works. These improvements form a key part of the tournament legacy … and will be enjoyed by both fans and players for many years to come.”
Outside the stadium, rugby-themed manhole covers dot Higashiosaka’s streets; a giant wooden rugby ball greets worshippers at Yoshida Kasuga shrine, where Liners players go to pray for a successful, injury-free season.
When the World Cup comes to Hanazono next year, Komura will not be among the fans inside the 24,000-seat stadium. Instead, he will be outside working as a volunteer to repay the kindness he and his wife say they were shown during their time in England three years ago.
“In England, they have Twickenham, and Hanazono is Japan’s Twickenham,” says Komura, a scrum half who captains a senior team. “I want to do my bit to make sure that all of the fans who come to watch the World Cup go home loving Japan.”
Few foreign players have immersed themselves in Osaka life more than Toetu’u Taufa, a Tongan-born player who spent his entire 13-year professional career with the Liners.
Taufa, who retired in March and now works as a coach and World Cup ambassador, has Harumi Okuno and her husband, Hiroshi, to thank for easing him through his formative days in Japan.
“They are like my Japanese mum and dad,” he says of the couple, whose tiny restaurant a stone’s throw from Hanazono has been serving takoyaki octopus dumplings – a popular Osaka street food – for more than 35 years. “Sometimes I’ll just be at my place and they’ll bring heaps of vegetables and rice, and presents for my kids at Christmas. But it’s not only me. They do it for all the players.
“I came here almost every day for lunch when I was training,” adds Taufa, who arrived in Japan on a rugby scholarship at Nihon University 18 years ago. The loose forward joined the Liners four years later and went on to earn 22 caps for Japan, including an appearance at the 2011 World Cup.
Harumi, whose restaurant has welcomed countless visiting rugby teams over the years, including the All Blacks, will be handing out fans to visiting supporters at the World Cup. “It will still be pretty hot in Osaka in September,” she says. “And it’s the first time the Rugby World Cup will be held in Asia, so I really want it to be a success.”
Taufa has one piece of advice for the Tongan fans who will descend on Hanazono. “I think they’ll really enjoy themselves, but I just hope they don’t drink too much,” he jokes. Osaka’s rugby fans, though, are hardly shrinking violets when it comes to match-day beers – ideally accompanied by plate after plate of the Okunos’ takoyaki.