Japan and Tonga have developed a bond based on an unusual combination — the abacus and rugby.
Sinali Latu, 47, is the product of that unique relationship, which began with the visit in 1976 of a top Japanese abacus teacher to Tonga, whose national sport is rugby.
Teacher Toshio Nakano, who graduated from Tokyo’s Daito Bunka University, where he captained the rugby team, introduced Japanese abacus techniques to Tonga’s king on his trip to the Polynesian country. Intrigued by the device, the king began sending rugby players to Nakano’s university in 1980 so they could study the abacus.
Latu came to Japan on the program in February 1985. After learning Japanese for a year, he began his college life at Daito Bunka while studying at an abacus school for children.
“Nowadays, abacus education is part of elementary and high school curriculums in Tonga,” Latu said in fluent Japanese. “It may be a good brain-training program, though I am not good at it.”
“Electronic calculators are faster,” he joked.
Latu excelled at sports as a youth. He was drafted by Tonga’s national rugby team in his final year of high school, and set national records for high schoolers in the triple jump and shot put.
He led Daito Bunka’s team to the National Collegiate Rugby Union Championship in the 1986-1987 season, defeating Waseda University, one of the top college rugby clubs in the nation.
“We had a ‘chemical reaction,’ ” recalled Yasuyuki Kagami, 63, who coached the university’s rugby team back then.
Kagami let his players enjoy the game by breaking down the hierarchical barriers that characterize college sports teams in Japan, with Latu serving as the “teacher” for his teammates on the field.
In May 1989, Japan’s national rugby team, with Latu in its ranks, achieved a historic victory against Scotland by 28-24 points at Tokyo’s Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground, the spiritual home of Japanese rugby. Latu pulled off a game-deciding tackle by shoving a Scottish wing out of bounds just as he was about to cross the line and score a try, 16 minutes into the second half.
The Scottish player “would have been shocked because he was sure to score,” Latu said.
That game was the Japanese rugby team’s first international match under the late coach Hiroaki Shukuzawa.
Latu joined Sanyo Electric Co. in 1990 and invited his wife and daughter to Japan so they could be reunited. He had gotten married before leaving for his studies at Daito Bunka, but couldn’t afford to support them in Japan at that time.
Before Japan’s starting lineup was selected for an April 1990 match against Tonga at the Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground, in the Asia-Pacific elimination round for the 1991 Rugby World Cup, Shukuzawa asked Latu if he felt up to playing against his home nation and former classmates. Latu said he was and played hard in the No. 8 position, helping Japan to a 28-16 victory.
“Naturally, I wondered if he would be able to kindle his fighting spirit against his home country, but I believed in his strong loyalty to the Japan team,” Shukuzawa said of Latu in a book he later published. “I wonder if I could have felt the same as he did if I had been in his position.”
Latu represented Japan’s rugby team at three World Cups. In his last game with the national team, in the 1995 World Cup, Japan was shredded by New Zealand, losing by a record-breaking 145-17.
“Though we had no chance of winning, it was a great opportunity for us to check how well we could play against the No. 1 team in the world,” Latu said afterward. “But Japan threw in the towel from the beginning.”
Latu currently works as a marketing manager in Gunma Prefecture for an office of Panasonic Eco Solutions Commercial Equipment Systems Co., a Panasonic Corp. subsidiary. “I cover Gunma, Saitama and Tochigi prefectures. I come home late at night because I have to work hard,” he said.
Life in Tonga, which consists of some 170 islands in the South Pacific, is “leisurely and I dream of it,” he conceded. “But we will continue to live in Japan.”
Latu and his wife have already obtained Japanese citizenship. Their first Japanese passports were issued on March 11, 2011 — the day of the quake-tsunami disaster.