KOBE - Former Japan national team captain and manager Seiji Hirao, one of the most popular players of his time, passed away on Thursday at the age of 53, sources at Top League side Kobe Kobelco Steelers said.
According to the Kobe Shimbun, Hirao had been recently battling an illness.
World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont paid tribute to Hirao on Thursday.
“On behalf of World Rugby I would like to express my condolences to the family and friends of Seiji Hirao and to the entire Japanese rugby family,” Beaumont said. “Hirao-san was a fine player, coach and also administrator and always helped to push Japanese rugby on the world stage. He will be greatly missed.”
Former Japan international and member of the World Rugby Hall of Fame Yoshihiro Sakata said, “It is very sad news. He was such an important person and was so young.”
Japan Rugby Football Union chairman Noriyuki Sakamoto said, “His exploit in creating an era in Japanese rugby is immeasurable. I’d like to pay respect to what he has achieved and pray for his soul.”
Known throughout Japan as “Mr. Rugby,” Hirao led Fushimi Kogyo, his Kyoto high school, to the national high school title in the 1980-1981 season.
From there he went to the city’s Doshisha University, where he helped that institution to three national university titles.
After he graduated in 1985, Hirao spent time in England playing for the famous Richmond club in west London before returning the following year to embark on a career with corporate side Kobe Steel.
With Hirao at its core, the Steelers became the team to beat, winning seven successive corporate and national titles between 1989 and 1995.
“He was one of the people I was influenced the most (by) during my rugby career,” said former Kobe and Japan wing/center Daisuke Ohata. “I’m really grateful for him in being patient with an immature player in me when he was Japan’s head coach. I wanted him to be involved in Japanese rugby for much longer.”
After winning 35 caps for his country, and representing Japan in the 1987, 1991 and 1995 Rugby World Cups, Hirao finally hung up his boots (as a player) and made the transition to coach, first at Kobe and then with the Japan national team, which he led at the 1999 World Cup in Wales.
Quitting the post in 2000, Hirao returned to Kobe to take on the role of general manager for the Steelers.
“He was telling me he’d get well by next summer and I was hopeful on that. It’s just so disappointing,” said Takeshi Okada, who managed the Japan men’s soccer team in the 1998 and 2010 World Cups.
“It’s a huge loss not just for the rugby world but for the Japanese sports world as a whole.”