Beyond making their audience laugh with punchlines, comedy duo Sandwich Man have two other missions.
One is supporting the Tohoku area’s recovery from the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, something personal to them as Sendai natives. The other is promoting the Rugby World Cup as former high school rugby players themselves.
“Since Japan won the bidding for the World Cup, we wanted to get involved in any possible way,” Mikio Date, one-half of the nationally popular group alongside partner Takeshi Tomizawa, said in an exclusive interview with The Japan Times.
Their wish was granted a year ago when they launched their radio program “Sandwich Man’s We Love Rugby,” on TBS.
“We have former and active rugby players as guests and talk about rugby very seriously,” Date said of the 10-minute program, which runs weekly from Tuesday through Friday. “Promoting the World Cup is kind of our mission now.”
Date first came across the sport as an elementary school student in Osaka. His father took him to Hanazono Rugby Stadium to watch a game featuring Iwate’s Nippon Steel Kamaishi.
That contest left a big impression on Date.
“I remember watching legendary (former Japan scrumhalf and standoff) Yuji Matsuo play. My father is also from Tohoku and loves the area, and that may be why he took me to see Kamaishi’s match,” recalled Date, who eventually took up the sport at Sendai Commercial High School in 1990. “I met Tomizawa there. We both played prop, with me playing (on the) right and Tomizawa on (the) left. That’s how we stand on the stage now, too.”
The 44-year-old Date distinctly remembers his very first match. His club had only 17 players, including freshmen, when he joined, and he was forced to play right away against perennial national tournament regular Ishinomaki Industrial High School.
“That game ended in a 101-0 loss,” Date said with a laugh. “I can’t forget. We were one of the weakest rugby teams in Miyagi Prefecture.”
Sandwich Man became popular after winning the “M-1 Grand Prix,” one of Japan’s most-respected comedy competitions, in 2007. They became even more famous when they escaped from the March 11, 2011, tsunami while filming a TV program in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture. After halting production and evacuating to a nearby mountain, the comedians and the TV crew watched as the waters reached the area where they had been working hours earlier.
“That was a significant day for us. We would’ve been killed if we had not moved,” Date recalled. “We feel like we were left alive. We decided to support the Tohoku area and people there. We cannot let people forget about the damage suffered by the Tohoku area and its people.”
Date is especially pleased that Kamaishi will host two World Cup matches.
“My hometown Sendai failed to win its bid, but I’m happy for Kamaishi,” he said. “It’s a rugby town and one of the most-damaged cities in Tohoku (after the earthquake and tsunami).
“A lot of people around the world helped us. The World Cup is a good chance to show how we’ve recovered.”
Earlier this year, Date and Tomizawa visited the southeastern Miyagi Prefecture town of Yamamoto-cho, which was seriously damaged by the tsunami. In 2011, the soil was damaged by sea salt, but the comedic duo was greeted by healthy green grass when they arrived.
“Nothing was left there after the tsunami. But they started to grow grass again,” said Date. “The grass will be brought to Toyota Stadium (in Aichi Prefecture) and used for the World Cup. It’s great, isn’t it?
“It was a beautiful sea of green grass. They let us play catch on it, so we are the first in the world to play rugby on the grass.”
Sandwich Man’s rugby skit is among the group’s most popular. Date and Tomizawa have frequently performed it on stage in order to introduce the rules of the sport. Date can clearly remember how audience reactions changed following the Brave Blossoms’ historic upset of South Africa during the 2015 Rugby World Cup in England.
“Before that game, people laughed a lot because they were not really familiar with rugby. But Japan’s win made rugby a major topic and people began to know the rules,” Date reflected. “Then the skit became a little boring for fans familiar with rugby. They’d say ‘hey, we know that already.’
“But that match between Japan and South Africa is definitely my favorite. I have watched it over and over. I watch it when I need to be cheered up, and every time I find something new.
With less than a year remaining before rugby fans from around the world converge on Japan, Date hopes the event will introduce a new generation of fans to the sport.
“The best part of rugby is the spirit of ‘no sides,’ ” Date said. “They play hard, they clash hard, but there are no enemies once the game ends. If you watch it live at a stadium, you will love it. I want as many as possible to come to the stadiums to watch World Cup matches.”