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How World Cup sparked love affair between Japan and rugby

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Via Financial Times

Ahead of last weekend’s Rugby World Cup semi-finals in Yokohama, the authorities installed a brand new set of decibel meters.

The purpose was to measure the volume of the 70,000-strong crowd’s kakegoe — a lupine, crescendoed howl normally reserved for Japan’s most practised kabuki actors.

When the world cup final between England and South Africa kicks off on Saturday, the collective kakegoe created by the travelling supporters and the domestic faithful is expected to hit the top of the machines’ scales. It will also record — perhaps more than any other phenomenon — the unexpectedly permanent stamp that Japan and this tournament have left on the game of rugby.

“The sadness about this World Cup,” remarked Eddie Jones, England coach, as he announced his team for Saturday, “is that it’s going to end.”

Japan's Michael Leitch (C) takes part in a lineout during the friendly rugby match between Japan and South Africa at the Kumagaya Rugby Stadium in Kumagaya on September 6, 2019. (Photo by CHARLY TRIBALLEAU / AFP) (Photo credit should read CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP/Getty Images)
Japan’s team beat Russia, shocked Ireland, outplayed Samoa and then held on for a famous win over Scotland  © Charly triballeau/AFP/Getty Images

Few could have imagined such sentiments when the Rugby World Cup was awarded to Japan a decade ago. The decision to hold the tournament in Japan — and Asia — for the first time was a double gamble. The first wager was that there is mileage in trying to expand the game beyond the core northern and southern hemisphere countries where rugby is most strongly established.

The second was on the enthusiasm of the domestic audience. Japanese rugby was well-established in its own niche of elite schools, private universities and a semi-professional corporate league. But wider awareness was minimal and the organisers knew they were taking a huge bet on the international prowess of the Brave Blossoms national team. Both bets paid off handsomely.

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“Japan will win all their group games,” Katsuyuki Kiyomiya, vice-president of Japan’s Rugby Football Union, predicted boldly ahead of the opening match, referring to the competition’s opening phase. “If they don’t win, it’ll be a problem.”

Bookmakers would have given long odds against this before the tournament kicked off on September 20. But as Japan beat Russia, shocked Ireland, outplayed Samoa and then held on for a famous win over Scotland that took them into the quarter-finals for the first time, the nation began to obsess over rugby. New supporters were helped by detailed explanations of the rules that flash up on television screens whenever the referee awards a penalty.

“It’s been really popular,” said Tetsuya Uchino, who runs a sports bar in Tokyo called The Grub. “As the tournament went on the fever slowly built up and now even matches between strong foreign sides are popular. For Japan games, we had to turn people away because they couldn’t fit inside.”

It quickly became impossible to buy a replica Japan rugby shirt anywhere in the country, a drought created by both Japanese belatedly realising they were witnessing a piece of sporting history, and visiting fans who found themselves caught up in the unscripted fever.

Foreign fans also got the benefit of over-the-top Japanese omotenashi hospitality, which went as far as primary school children learning the words of “Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau”, or “Land of My Fathers”, to fully perform their duties as mascots to the Welsh national team.

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England coach Eddie Jones watches his team on the field before the Rugby World Cup semifinal at International Yokohama Stadium between New Zealand and England in Yokohama, Japan, Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019. (AP Photo/Mark Baker)
This tournament could elevate England captain Eddie Jones to legend status

They also included squads of Japanese volunteers, positioned near the exits of the stadiums, offering consolatory hugs to fans of whichever team had lost.

The Uruguay team fulfilled one rugby tradition by getting into a nightclub brawl, but it was a rare discordant moment. Canada won the affection of their hosts in the city of Kamaishi by helping to clean up the streets after a devastating typhoon struck at the climax of the group stages.

The England team was fined for making a V-shaped formation as a counterpoint to New Zealand’s ceremonial Haka. But, as many pointed out, the £2,000 penalty would not even buy a pair of tickets to finals as the online prices surge ahead of Saturday’s contest.

Social media groups set up in the opening days of the tournament to collect and harrumph at videos of fans behaving badly rapidly ran out of fuel for outrage. Initial complaints about the cancellation of two games vanished once the visiting teams experienced the ferocious scale of Typhoon Hagibis, and when it became apparent that staff had slept overnight in the Yokohama stadium to ensure it was ready for Scotland to take on Japan.

And over the six weeks of the tournament, fans in all the different stadiums kept hearing the kakegoe and, increasingly, participating in it. By the semi-finals, a fairly obscure sound from the vaults of Japanese theatrical tradition had become totemic, the defining soundtrack of a World Cup that has subtly but decisively woven Japaneseness into the greatest showcase of a game that might, to some, seem resistant to such change.

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For Jones, all this must be ignored as he prepares for a match that could elevate him to legend status in England. When the Japanese-Australian coach was asked this week whether he felt the weight of history ahead of Saturday’s tournament decider, he was characteristically succinct. “I don’t have to worry about history,” he said. “I’m not a historian.”

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