Rugby in Japan
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World Cup rugby is just around the corner and warm-up games are already being played. As this year’s World Cup is being held in my home country (England) I thought it was high time that my friends in Gunma get a lesson on rugby.
After England, Japan will host the World Cup (in 2019) so there is obviously a fan base here in Japan, although you wouldn’t necessarily know it (the sport is only played from high school onwards, and even then isn’t so popular). Interestingly, rugby is technically the third most popular team sport in Japan, after football (soccer) and baseball. However, after these two sports there is a big step down in terms of popularity. Many Japanese people don’t even recognise the Japanese rugby shirt (which you may have seen me rocking) even though it has a large Sakura (Cherry Blossom) sown on to the chest and a Japanese flag on the shoulder. Here’s the 2011 World Cup version:
The team is commonly called the Cherry Blossoms (although this has now more frequently become the Brave Blossoms in an attempt to give a strong and aggressive feeling to a team that is otherwise named after a pink flower). The Cherry Blossoms are currently ranked 14th in the world and the team have qualified for every World Cup. They are the strongest team in Asia, but they are unfortunately no match for top teams such as New Zealand.
For those of you unfamiliar with rugby here is a simplified explanation. There are a few different forms of rugby, but for the purpose of this article we are only going to discuss Rugby Union, the most commonly played version of the game. A first point for the Americans out there is that your most similar game is football (or American football, as we in the Commonwealth like to call it).
However, aside from tackling rugby and American football are not really at all alike. Rugby is full contact but rugby players do not wear protective gear preferring to use their natural size to take out the opposition (or enemy as some players like to say). It is a game which is played in over 120 countries around the world, but is most popular in Europe and Commonwealth countries.
A team consists of 15 players whom play a continuously flowing 80 minute game, with no offense and defence teams. The object of the game is to score points by either kicking (a penalty/drop kick or a conversion, worth three and two points respectively) or placing the ball down in the scoring area, which is called a try (originally short for try at goal and is worth five points). The posts are in the shape of an H and the ball is egg shaped:
When there is a breakdown in play, there is competition for the ball in the forms of rucks and mauls. You are not allowed to pass the ball forwards. There are also lineouts and scrums, which are key factors of rugby union, but for the purpose of keeping this explanation short look to Google Sensei if you are interested. Now that you’ve got the basics of rugby let’s move on to the history of Rugby in Japan.
Rugby has a lengthy history in Japan. The British first brought it to Japan in 1866 and the first game was played in Yokohama. The reason why rugby originally became popular in Japan was because many Japanese people viewed it as agreeing with the way of the samurai, or the bushido values (stressing the importance of such traits as braveness, honour and loyalty). It is claimed that nowadays Japan has the fourth largest population of rugby union players in the world, which is hard to believe but interesting.
Gunma has its own team – the Panasonic Wild Knights. They play in the ‘Top League’ of Japan, between September and February. The Panasonic Wild Knights have been successful in the past few years; in 2008 they were the first team to be unbeaten for an entire season, in 2010 they won the league, and their fans have been twice awarded the ‘Japan Special Award,’ for their support and atmosphere at the games. They are based in Ota and their logo looks like this:
If this article has piqued your interest in rugby (or you would simply like to see a game) please head to Ota and support our local Gunma team to learn more about this great sport. Hopefully I will see you at a Panasonic Wild Knights game in the near future.