Japan fell a win short of making the final four at the Rugby World Cup, but both those involved in the game and others watching from the outside said Sunday they are proud of what the team achieved.
“Watching them beat Ireland, then Scotland (in the pool stages), it was more than I thought was possible. I want Japan to keep improving and win the World Cup one day,” Yokohama resident Musashi Oka said after watching Japan lose its quarterfinal 26-3 to South Africa from a fan zone outside Oita Station.
The 27-year-old, among hundreds of Japanese and foreign fans in Oita, said meeting rugby fans from around the world has been a highlight of the World Cup so far. “It’s been so much fun. I hope we can host it again,” he said.
Masaaki Fuji, from Komagane in Nagano Prefecture, was likewise proud of the Brave Blossoms’ performance at the tournament.
“It’s unfortunate that Japan lost to a really strong South Africa, but reaching the last eight is like a dream,” Fuji, 28, said.
In Niigata, home to prop Keita Inagaki, over 400 of his friends, former classmates and their families gathered at a public viewing venue.
His father Takumi said, “He fought well. I will tell him, ‘You did good hard work, now rest well.'”
Rugby enthusiasts at Tokyo Stadium clad in red-and-white Japan jerseys cheered the Brave Blossoms to the very end of their game against the two-time champion Springboks.
“The scrums of South Africa were so amazing it was even scary. Japan fought well by connecting some quick passes,” said Maki Kawanaka, 43, from Osaka.
Hiroyuki Murata, 51, from Saitama, also said he was impressed with the dominant performance of the world No. 4 team.
“The South Africans used their strong build and played with confidence,” he said.
Japanese players and head coach Jamie Joseph said that the warm support they received from the fans before and after the tournament kicked off on Sept. 20 pushed them every day in their successful quest for a first quarterfinal berth.
“We lost but I am proud of the team. Thank you for the fantastic support,” said veteran Japan second-rower Luke Thompson, who played in three of his team’s four pool stage wins despite being 38-years-old.
Some 12,000 fans gathered at Hanazono Rugby Stadium in Osaka Prefecture where his Top Challenge League team the Kintetsu Liners are based. Thompson said he “will miss” representing Japan.
“Each game Thompson fought until his body was worn out. He really added momentum to the world of rugby in Japan,” Yasuyoshi Hashimoto, 33, said.
Hirohito Okada, 58, said, “His powerful tackles are amazing. He has been the linchpin of the Japan defense.”
Fans of winger Kenki Fukuoka in his hometown of Koga, Fukuoka Prefecture, expressed hope the Brave Blossoms have inspired more children to take up rugby.
“We are sure children have become fans of rugby. I hope Japan will again keep fighting,” said Sachie Iio, 39, who was cheering with her two children.
Some fans were also thinking about former playmaker and coach Seiji Hirao, dubbed “Mr. Rugby,” who died three years ago on Sunday.
He is credited with popularizing rugby in the 1990s and laying the foundation for the team’s success at the current tournament.
“I have been a fan of rugby for over 30 years. It was a special match. Without the efforts by Mr. Hirao, Japan would not be hosting the tournament,” Kenji Tsuchiya, 48, from Tokyo said.