Japan’s impressive performance in the Rugby World Cup has triggered unprecedented interest in the sport, with the national team making it to the knockout stage for the first time ever.
Despite the fad, however, rugby teams in Japan have been scrapped in recent years because the number of players is shrinking, but a small number of schools and businesses are forming teams to defy the downtrend.
Tokai University Urayasu Senior High School in Urayasu, Chiba Prefecture, founded a rugby team in April. Taking the helm as head coach is Soichi Nishikawa, 23, who was a key player on the university’s team last season.
As a former player on a team that counts Japan captain Michael Leitch as an alumnus, Nishikawa has been invited to join teams in the Japan’s professional Top League. But he opted for a teaching role at the high school instead, saying, “I want to pass on the virtues of rugby to the next generation.”
The team consists of 17 beginners in their first year of high school, with the role of captain rotated daily among them.
“It is thanks to the (Rugby) World Cup that 17 students joined at the beginning,” Nishikawa said. “I want them to find their individuality and their way of life through rugby, no matter how big they are.”
Masaki Saito, 16, is one of the 17. He was the captain of the basketball team at Tokai University Urayasu Junior High School, but decided to join the rugby team after being inspired by a giant Rugby World Cup poster he saw in front of a train station.
“We will become No. 1 in Japan in our final year of school,” he said.
In August, goal posts were put up in the field of Fuchu No. 2 Junior High School in the western Tokyo suburb of Fuchu, home to two powerhouse Top League teams. Four years ago, it was the first junior high school in the city to set up a rugby team.
Despite tag rugby, a noncontact variant of the sport, being popular with elementary school students in the city, passion for the sport often dwindles as students move on to junior high school.
“Many children stop playing after leaving elementary school, so I wanted to create an environment for those who wanted to continue the sport,” said teacher Yoshitaka Ui, 31, who has been in charge of the team since its inception. “The spirit of self-sacrifice, of putting yourself forward for the sake of others, leads to character-building.”
“The H-shaped goal post is a symbol of rugby,” said team captain Seima Hashimoto, in his third and final year at the school. “The goal posts motivate me.”
Moves to launch rugby teams go beyond schools, however, as companies are also showing interest. A rugby team was established in April for employees of railroad and real estate group Tokyu Corp. The team currently has some 50 members — including those who don’t play but just watch the games instead.
“It’s a community that accepts a wide variety of people who are interested, not just those who want to play again,” founding member Kenta Iwata, 25, said. “I’m glad we established it before the Rugby World Cup kicked off.”
According to the Japan Rugby Football Union, the number of rugby players in Japan peaked at around 167,000 in 1995 and has declined since.
Despite a temporary uptick following the previous Rugby World Cup in 2015, when Japan upset South Africa, the number of players plummeted to a record low of about 95,000 this year.
The organization is hoping that Japan’s performance at this year’s tournament will inspire more people to get involved.