1866 and all that: the untold early history of rugby in Japan

Ahead of the upcoming Tokyo Sevens rugby tournament, we examine the founding history of the game in Japan and its pioneering players

by Mike Galbraith

Special To The Japan Times

The history of rugby in Japan is arguably longer than that of every major rugby-playing country in the world outside of the British Isles and Australia. Very sorry France, New Zealand and South Africa! Regarding early documented rugby history, Japan wins. Until the recent discovery of an 1864 article in a Welsh newspaper, it seemed that rugby in Japan had a longer history than club rugby in Wales, too.

Unfortunately, almost no one knows this history because Japan’s rugby establishment apparently loves the story of Ginnosuke Tanaka and his friend, Edward Bramwell Clarke, introducing rugby to Keio University in 1899 so much that it dismisses rugby in the country prior to that date as mainly involving sailors and unworthy of consideration.

In 2009, this writer telephoned the World Rugby Museum (run by England’s Rugby Football Union) in Twickenham to inform them of founding documented evidence of the Yokohama Foot Ball Club in 1866. An official from the RFU replied that there must be some mistake because the organization had recently researched the early history of rugby worldwide. She said a senior official in Japan re-confirmed previous information held by the RFU that rugby in the country started in 1899.

So let’s start at the beginning.

The earliest evidence of rugby being played in Japan appears in a 1908 Sydney newspaper article that noted how Adm. Harry Rawson, then governor of New South Wales, “recalled playing in the first cricket match played in Japan in 1863, a remarkable feature of which was the fact that half the players were playing football.”

The earliest significant evidence of rugby being played can be found in The Japan Times (This newspaper was subsequently incorporated into The Japan Times, Ltd.), which records a meeting held on Jan. 26, 1866, to found the “Yokohama Foot Ball Club.”

“More than forty names have been put down as willing to support a Foot ball Club,” says an editorial in The Japan Times, and “as we happen to have two or three Rugby and Winchester men in the Community, that we may be certain that we shall have really good scientific play.”

Named officials were elected, including a committee to determine “the rules.” The day was six years and five days before the birth nearby of Edward Bramwell Clarke, who supposedly first introduced rugby to Japan — in 1899!

How could it be that Asia’s first rugby club was founded not in Hong Kong, Singapore, Shanghai or India but in Yokohama, which six years earlier was a small sleepy fishing village with no foreign residents?

The answer is partly to do with its winter climate but also due to the stationing of more than 1,000 mainly young soldiers of the 20th Regiment’s 2nd Battalion, together with some marines and other units in two “camps” on the bluff above Yokohama in 1864 to protect the foreign community following an assault on British citizens during the Namamugi Incident of 1862. The strong naval presence in those years sometimes meant that the number of Yokohama’s military personnel more than doubled temporarily.

Another key factor was the presence of many young officers educated at Britain’s few rugby-playing public schools. This greatly helped to overcome the fundamental obstacle to starting a rugby club — you needed at least 40 men (later on 30) to play a game. The sport was not an easy one for beginners to pick up and the rules differed from school to school. Hence the problem about deciding the rules.

That rules committee of five that was formed in 1866 included Capt. Charles Rochfort and Capt. Richard Blount of the 20th Regiment, as well as naval officer Lord Walter Talbot Kerr, son of the seventh Marquess of Lothian, who went on to become a first naval lord of the Royal Navy. Blount belonged to a leading English Catholic family, while Rochfort inherited one of Ireland’s largest estates. These were no ordinary soldiers and sailors.

Not long after the foundation meeting, the 20th Regiment was replaced by the 9th Regiment, which was, in turn, replaced by the 10th. It appears that rugby was not so popular with these regiments, although the Royal Marines, which grew to outnumber other units in the final period before departing in 1874, formed its own team. Meanwhile, Kerr’s ship left Japanese waters in mid-1866.

In 1867 or very early 1868, George Hamilton arrived. Hamilton was Scottish and had studied at Rugby School, the famous English public school where, in 1823, William Webb Ellis supposedly first ran forward carrying the ball, thus creating the sport of rugby.

James Mollison, who founded the Yokohama Cricket Club in mid-1868 together with Hamilton, described Hamilton as “captain of the Yokohama Rugby Team.” Hamilton worked in the same office as Mollison and, in around 1870, Evan James Fraser, another Rugby School alumni from Scotland, arrived to manage the same office. Fraser, like Hamilton, was an excellent all-round sportsman. These two Rugby School alumni deserve recognition for leading the development of rugby in Japan in the 1870s.

Meanwhile, Englishman Edgar Abbott arrived in 1869. Referring to his sporting talents, Mollison later called him “one of the best all-round men, if not the very best, that ever came from England to the Far East.”

Other rugby players included the three Dare brothers (George, John Julius and Alfred), Irishman Dr. Edwin Wheeler, H.J. Abell, Capt. Arthur Hill, George Melhuish, and the consular officials John Gubbins and Joseph Longford.

These men formed the club’s nucleus, and many played for almost 20 years. At first the club’s games were played in the two aforementioned camps, especially on the main Parade Ground, and also on the Swamp Ground behind the settlement. After the completion in 1873 of the park that is now Yokohama Koen, the football club paid the Yokohama Cricket Club annual fees to use the grounds during the rugby season.

Actual evidence of rugby matches can be found in occasional and mostly brief newspaper stories. In December 1870, for example, a report in the Japan Weekly Mail said, “The dry and frosty weather having set in, football has been started, and promises to be fairly kept up during the winter.” The start (and end) of the rugby season was often recorded like this.

In December 1872, the Japan Weekly Mail reported that “A CHALLENGE has been received by the Yokohama Football Club from the foreign community in Yedo to play a match, on the Swamp. The challenge will be accepted, the date fixed being the 7th proximo.” Later the same month, the journal said the Royal Marines defeated the same Yedo team by three goals to zero on the Parade Ground.

After the departure of the last of the marines in 1874, and the sharp reduction of the naval presence, there were few games against “foreign” teams. Club members typically divided into two teams based on different criteria. The “Talls” versus the “Shorts,” or the “Ojisans” versus the “Wakai-hitos” are examples. However, the most passionately contested games were those invoking nationality, such as Scotland versus World or English versus Scots.

In November 1873, the Japan Weekly Mail covered a drawn “English Vs the Scotch and Irish” match. “Mr. Gubbins ‘dribbled’ the ball capitally and Mr. Abbott played half-back in excellent form; Messrs. Hamilton, Abell, Hill and E. Fraser were conspicuous amongst the forward players; while Messrs. Melhuish, Dare and Wheeler were also equally most useful.”

It said the next game would be “the return match of The Services and The Settlement” the following Wednesday.

A famous illustration that was published in April 1874 in The Graphic magazine and later in Harper’s Weekly titled “Football in Yokohama” was most probably based on this game. Indeed, the Harper’s Weekly caption states that “this sketch represents a foot-ball match between Englishmen and Scotchmen near the city of Yokohama in Japan.”

Based on Japanese sources, however, one official from the International Rugby Board wrote in the official Rugby School Tour Program that was produced for its first ever tour to Japan in 2011 that the image showed a “team of English sailors and a Yokohama Club team.”

The accompanying paragraph in The Graphic says, “There is a British colony at Yokohama, Japan and they have introduced the mysteries of football to the Far East,” calling Yokohama’s multi-sports ground “a local Lillie Bridge, under the shadow of the lovely snow-mountain Fusiyama.”

Looking at the illustration, five things stand out: Firstly, the flag with the letters YFC (Could a B be hidden by a furl?) clearly indicates the existence of the club; secondly, there are many spectators, including kimono-clad women; thirdly, the man wearing a tassled cap is surely the club captain, Hamilton. If that is so, then the team wearing striped shirts is the Scots; fourthly, in that case, the small man facing the viewer on the right is surely the English halfback, Abbott; and finally, a “scrimmage” is taking place.

In November 1878, the Japan Weekly Mail reported that “football supercedes cricket on our recreation ground. One match, that of ‘Talls’ versus ‘Shorts’ came off on Saturday last. The game was well contested and ended in favour of the ‘Talls,’ who scored one goal and a touchdown, to the ‘Shorts’ one goal. Another, ‘Scotland’ versus ‘The Settlement,’ is being played on the Cricket Ground, this afternoon.” The article later describes how “the game as played here is of a very mild form” and ” ‘tempting of Providence’ for grown men to play.”

What’s more, it “appears foolhardy, and it is never a matter of surprise when we hear of a broken leg or collar-bone.”

On March 8, 1884, the Japan Weekly Mail reported on the final rugby match of the season between the “Ojisans” and the “Wakai-hitos.” Hamilton scored a try as the “Ojisans,” which included Abbott, won.

“The club may be congratulated on having had a very successful season, notwithstanding that no foreign matches could be arranged,” the article concluded.

The following month, the rugby club, led by Abbott and supported by Hamilton, organized and led the initiative that merged the cricket, rugby, athletics and baseball clubs to form the Yokohama Country & Athletic Club that survives today.

This also means that the club founded in 1866 is directly linked to today’s YC&AC rugby club, making it possibly around No. 10 in the world regarding length of continuous history.

In early 2013, the RFU accepted this writer’s evidence of early rugby in Japan. Surely it is also time for Japan’s rugby establishment to acknowledge and embrace its illustrious early rugby history involving those talented pioneers, both Japanese and non-Japanese, who played before 1899.

Mike Galbraith, a former YC&AC captain and Kanagawa representative, playing rugby in Japan since 1973, wrote his first history of rugby in Japan in 1987. He is also the YC&AC’s historian.