Last weekend saw packed crowds take over Ajinomoto Stadium and Nissan Stadium, two of the J. League’s biggest venues, for pageantry-filled days of sport.
That sport, however, was not soccer.
Instead, the two stadia — known temporarily as Tokyo Stadium and International Stadium Yokohama — have been pressed into service for the ongoing Rugby World Cup, the first edition held outside of rugby union’s traditional powerhouse nations.
Beyond the six-week event’s important role as a dry run of Japan’s ability to manage a huge influx of foreign fans ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, it’s a test of rugby’s ability to make connections with new domestic audiences as World Rugby seeks to establish a foothold in Asia.
Perhaps no sports entity in the country has been more accommodating toward the tournament than the J. League, which made significant concessions in its fixture schedule to allow for the use of so many top-division stadia.
Yokohama F. Marinos have been evicted to the cozy confines of Mitsuzawa Stadium since mid-August, while current leaders FC Tokyo were handed an unprecedented eight-game road trip to allow for their home ground’s eight allotted World Cup matches.
While some soccer fans might grumble over the J. League’s dimmed spotlight as the J1 heads into the final nine rounds of the season, others — as well as some of the country’s most well-esteemed soccer writers — view the World Cup as an opportunity to introduce themselves to a different sport.
This was especially so over the weekend as the J. League, in deference to the Rugby World Cup’s opening, declined to schedule any first-division fixtures.
“In a way it’s a little strange to have the opening match for the third-biggest sporting event in the world take place just 50 minutes from my house,” veteran soccer journalist Tetsuichi Utsunomiya wrote in his Sunday column for SportsNavi. “To see rugby goalposts in (Tokyo Stadium) was a curious sight, and in my first time covering rugby I felt admiration and confusion in rapid succession.”
Utsunomiya, who can usually be found anywhere from the FIFA World Cup to a regional league game, noted that he was not the only soccer devotee watching Friday’s Brave Blossoms win over Russia with rapt attention.
“My (Twitter) timeline, normally filled with soccer content, was overflowing with excitement for the Rugby World Cup, mostly from others like myself enjoying the differences from soccer,” Utsunomiya wrote. “The difference between VAR (soccer’s video assistant referees) and TMO (rugby’s television match official), the ability to use a team’s entire bench (rather than soccer’s three substitutes) and the lack of booing toward the referee’s decisions were all fresh discoveries for soccer fans.”
Other writers used their J. League experience to weigh in on controversy, such as the decision by organizers to allow fans to bring in their own food after stadium concession stands were slammed on social media for long lines and poor supplies.
“In the J. League you can generally bring in food and plastic bottles, and transfer drinks from cans to paper cups,” explained writer Yoshiyuki Kawaji on Yahoo News. “Even then there are lines for food stands — especially at halftime — and it’s clear that if they were going to ban food, they needed to dramatically increase the number of stalls.”
Writer Kazuto Oshima, who attended Tuesday’s game between Japan’s Pool A opponents Samoa and Russia, praised the travel arrangements at Kumagaya Rugby Stadium, one of the tournament’s more remote locales, noting the ample availability of buses as well as the omotenashi (hospitality) of volunteer staff.
“The volunteers made the walk fun when they high-fived us on the way, and those in charge of traffic control waved to the buses,” wrote Oshima. “It didn’t feel like something they were forced to do and their smiles created a positive energy.
“Few of the fans would have known players on either side, but the atmosphere was fantastic and a big reason for that is the hospitality Kumagaya showed to fans as soon as they arrived at the station. Anyone watching rugby for the first time last night surely left with a good impression of the sport and the tournament.”
With no J1 matches held on the tournament’s opening weekend, a number of J. League players took the opportunity to experience the atmosphere for themselves.
“It’s a great thing to experience something I’ve never experienced before,” tweeted Kashima Antlers midfielder Kento Misao on Sunday after watching France’s win over Argentina. “Watching the players compete was inspiring.”