On September 20th, under the floodlights at Tokyo’s Ajinomoto Stadium in Chofu, Japan and Russia will compete in the inaugural match of the Rugby World Cup2019. To some, Japan may seem like an unusual choice for Rugby World Cup host, however, evidence suggests the sport took root here as far back as 1866, making it one of the world’s oldest rugby nations. Before the world competition, let us have a look back at its history.
The Murky History
During the 1860’s Yokohama was a sleepy fishing village with very few foreigners populating the area. The rugby club that was established there in 1866, called Yokohama Foot Ball Club, was created by a British Battalion who were stationed on the bluff above the village. News of this was uncovered as a result of investigative journalists patching together newspaper clippings and illustrations over 140 years later! As such, the history of rugby in Japan is murky and openly contested.
One thing we do have a clearer image of is the (currently accepted) initial appearance of rugby in Tokyo. For that, the honor goes to goes to the Cambridge-educated, Japanese native, Ginnosuke Tanaka and his friend, Edward Bramwell Clarke, who collaboratively introduced rugby to students of Tokyo’s Keiogijiku (Keio University) in 1899.
Tanaka met Clarke, who was also born in Japan, when they were students and fellow rugby players in Cambridge, England. They both returned to Japan in 1899 to take up teaching positions at Keio University in Tokyo’s Minato ward. Clarke later wrote, ‘‘I introduced Rugby to the men of my then classes at Keiogijiku because they seemed to have nothing to occupy them out of doors in the after summer and winter days… I thought if I could get them interested in rugger their hours during their free afternoons would not be so long and wearisome.”
The Tides of Rugby Sweep Across the Nation
Though participation numbers were initially low and progress was equally labored, the University rugby team had its first official match on January 5th 1901 against a group of expatriates in Yokohama—a match in which Clarke and Tanaka both featured. From this point on the influence of rugby started to metastasize throughout the country, and by the 1920’s Japan had more than 1,500 official clubs and 60,000 registered players.
The popularity of rugby in Tokyo soared to previously unprecedented heights in the middle of the century when Prince Chichibu Rugby Stadium (often called “Chichibunomiya Stadium”) was built, two years after Japan’s surrender to the allied forces in WWII. The stadium was initially called Tokyo Rugby Stadium before it was renamed in honor of Prince Chichibu—who was by many accounts a lover of all sports—the year after his death in 1953. It has remained as the home of club rugby in Tokyo, and consequently Japan, ever since.
Chichibunomiya stadium has been hosting the finals of Japan’s club and University rugby competitions since the 1940’s, and is such an integral part of the nation’s rugby folklore that it’s set to be turned into a rugby museum in the coming years. Currently it’s the home stadium of Japan’s top professional club side, the Tokyo Sunwolves (who incidentally are preparing for their final year in Super Rugby, following the sombre news of their axing from the league in March).
The 2019 Rugby World Cup in Tokyo
Chichibunomiya Stadium will not feature in the Rugby World Cup this year. While this is admittedly a little disheartening, it is in part due to the stadium’s aging facilities and its relatively small seating capacity. The stadium of choice in the capital is Chofu’s Ajinomoto Stadium; with a sleeker design, superior facilities and a capacity of nearly 50,000, it’s undoubtedly more befitting of a global sporting showcase.
Along with the opening exchanges on September 20th, Ajinomoto Stadium will host a further seven World Cup encounters, including two quarter-finals and the third-place playoff. The other two quarter-final matches will be played in Oita, Kyushu. The semi-finals and Rugby World Cup Final will be hosted at the Nissan Stadium in Yokohama.
A Chance to Make More History
The 2019 Rugby World Cup is the first World Cup in the history of the sport to be held on Asian shores and, invariably, there is a certain level of expectation and pressure that comes with such a prestigious honor. Japanese events have a penchant for gravitas and spectacle, so on that front we shan’t be disappointed. Combine this with the top-drawer playing and training facilities that have been implemented across the country; the caliber of teams and players set to descend upon Japan for the competition; up to 500,000 travelling fans; and a comprehensive strategy by the World Cup Organising Committee to spread the rugby gospel in Japan over the past 10 years; we could be in for one of the most exciting World Cups in rugby history!