The earliest reference to a Japanese person playing rugby appears in a magazine produced by University College School in London. “Bell, Lindfield, Webster and Kikuchi deserve mention for the School,” says an account that referred to a third XV match in October 1872 against “any XV chosen from the School.”
The 17-year-old schoolboy, Kikuchi, grew up to become Baron Dairoku Kikuchi.
Back in Japan, both the Imperial Naval College and the Imperial College of Engineering employed foreign professors and instructors from 1873, and there is evidence rugby was played at the institutions, especially in the latter.
“The frequency of sickness among the students and their generally delicate physique, demanded greater attention to outdoor exercise,” wrote William Gray Dixon, who taught at the Imperial College of Engineering in the late 1870s. “For this end a football club was started. Different members of the foreign staff took part in the games.”
Interestingly, zealous historians of Japanese soccer, which lacks a long history, forlornly claim on J-League’s website that the Naval College introduced soccer to Japan.
Interest in rugby showed up even in the highest echelons of government. In 1878, the Japanese-language Akebono newspaper reported that statesman Iwakura Tomomi had “laid out a portion of his garden for playing football.”
The Meiji Period saw many Japanese studying in Britain, and a few played rugby.
Dr. Yoshihiro Takaki, who studied medicine at King’s College, London, and then spent around five years at St. Thomas’ Hospital from 1894, stands out. This writer has found some records from the year 1898 in which Takaki appears twice playing full games for the hospital’s first XV — once as fullback and once as a forward. This was one of England’s oldest clubs, having two teams with many fixtures against leading clubs. Its 1898 squad included two England players. Takaki later became the first chairman of the Japan Rugby Football Union.
Meanwhile, the father of Japanese rugby, Ginnosuke Tanaka, played for both his school and Trinity Hall, Cambridge. His 1892 school report states: “Conscientious forward. At his best in the scrum. Struggled hard both in and out of touch [sic]. Should use his feet more.”
Naomitsu Nabeshima, the 12th head of the Saga clan, also played rugby while at Cambridge between 1895 and 1897. According to a 1905 Japan Society lecture in London, “N. Nabeshima played half-back. . . . His contemporaries tell of him that he was one of the nimblest and smartest of the ‘halves,’ and threw into the game all the fierce zeal that its mimic warfare prompted. He would execute a little war-dance on his own account when his side scored a goal.”