With a 28-21 victory over Scotland Sunday night, the Brave Blossoms, Japan’s national rugby team, qualified for the Rugby World Cup quarterfinals for the first time. Japan prevailed in an exhilarating display of speed, execution and, ultimately, brute force, taking a deserved lead in the first half and then holding off a determined Scottish side as the clock ticked down. The nation is celebrating as the Brave Blossoms head into the knock-out games and contemplating lessons from the team’s stellar performance.
While the popularity of rugby in Japan trails well behind that of baseball, soccer, basketball, martial arts and other activities, the sport has a long history in Japan. The first matches — a version, at least — were reckoned to have taken place in 1863, when foreign military personnel slogged through the mud in Yokohama. Japanese picked up the sport with conviction at the turn of the century and there are reports of games between Keio University and Yokohama foreigners soon after.
Today, Japan has the fourth-largest number of rugby union players in the world. There are 125,000 Japanese rugby players and 3,631 official clubs. That history and enthusiasm have been slow to translate into world standing, however. The national team has long been relegated to tier-two status. Critics blame the size of Japanese players; a demand that young athletes compete in only one sport, a requirement that directs them into more popular games; poor university programs; and a league that is not truly professional.
Nevertheless, the Brave Blossoms have slowly climbed the international ranks. Their breakthrough moment arrived four years ago when the team defeated South Africa’s Springboks, one of the world’s best teams. That was only Japan’s second victory in 24 World Cup matches, and a win that some have called the biggest shock in rugby history. Meanwhile, in 2009, Japan won the rights to host the 2019 World Cup, the first Asian nation to have that honor.
Whether a result of the home field advantage or the team’s maturation and development, the Brave Blossoms have had a spectacular run. They won all their Pool games, defeating Russia, Ireland, Samoa and finally Scotland. The Brave Blossoms’ appearance in the quarterfinals is the first time that a tier-two team has performed that well since 2007, when Fiji managed that feat. One thing that cannot be credited is the luck of the draw. Ireland was the world’s No. 2 ranked team (when it faced off with Japan) and Scotland has bested the Brave Blossoms in seven consecutive matches; this is only the second time the Scottish team has not made the World Cup quarterfinals.
Some credit the Japanese team’s makeup for its success. World Rugby rules are liberal, allowing a player to join a national team after just three consecutive years of residency. This year, only 11 members of Japan’s 31-man team have two Japanese parents; 15 come from six other countries, South Korea, South Africa and New Zealand among them. This is the largest number of “international” players on any Japanese rugby team.
A pool of talent is only half the equation, however. Those skills will be wasted if coaches and management can’t incorporate them into a unified team. That demands a two-way process: Ensuring that individual skills are accommodated, and that players understand, appreciate, respect and conform to the team’s character. After all, this is a team that represents Japan in international competition. It has done the nation proud.
Some see the Brave Blossoms’ success as a lesson for the country. Historically, Japan has not been welcoming to foreigners. Today, there are a record 2.67 million foreign residents in Japan, roughly 2 percent of the population. Nearly 1.5 million foreign workers were registered in Japan in October 2018, a 400 percent increase over a decade. That growing presence does not mask tensions; sometimes it exacerbates them. Diversity is increasingly prized in Japan but integration and assimilation remain elusive. The Brave Blossoms’ performance is a sign of the opportunities that await and the advantages to be won if Japan does more to embrace foreign nationals and give them the chance to contribute.
The big question is how long good feelings will endure. Everyone loves a winner and the country is rallying behind its team. Yet rugby remains a tough sell in Japan. The number of people who play the game has fallen by a quarter over the last 15 years, to 90,000. It will be difficult to entice skilled foreign players to Japan given current low levels of professional play and players’ salaries. Splitting the season with established leagues elsewhere in the world is unlikely to work since it is a punishing sport and leagues limit the number of matches to protect players.
These are future concerns. For now, we salute the Brave Blossoms and wish them success in the quarterfinal against South Africa on Sunday.
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