FEATURE: Japanese rugby legend welcomes revived fervor for the sport

December 8, 2015 7:51 am 

OSAKA, Dec. 6 — During Japan's outstanding performance at this year's Rugby World Cup, Yoshiharu Yamaguchi, a former international during the 1960s and 1970s, detected a welcome revival of fervor among both Japanese players and fans.

Having seen Japan's opening game at the tournament in England in September, where it pulled off one of the biggest upsets in history by beating two-time world champion South Africa, he said he felt the fervor on display was different from the militaristic zeal that typified the sport during its earlier popularity in his own playing days.

Yamaguchi, 72, also praised Japan fullback Ayumu Goromaru for thanking his teammates for "creating opportunities" for him to become a World Cup star.

"Times have changed, but his humble attitude shows that something important for rugby players hasn't," he said.

Yamaguchi began playing rugby in high school and in the decade from the mid-1960s played for Japan as a flanker and kicker at the peak of the sport's popularity as the country was recovering from defeat in World War II.

Yamaguchi, who was born to a farming family in a village in Fukui Prefecture on the Sea of Japan coast, said he owes a lot to rugby as it changed his life. The sport "took me out of Fukui Prefecture and into the world," he said.

"Our coaches used to tell us to 'go and die for the country' to toughen us up before a game," he recalled. "These pep talks were the vestiges of a wartime military mentality, and I thought it would literally be alright if I were to die on the pitch."

"People in those days were demanding something passionate in life," he recalled, "and this might have been behind the ardor for rugby."

Rugby was introduced to Japan more than 100 years ago, largely by the British based in Yokohama, and had become one of the most popular sports by the early 20th century. But the boom began to wane in the years leading up to World War II, with many players being sent off to fight and stadiums being closed.

Hanazono Rugby Stadium in Higashiosaka, Osaka Prefecture, for example, was seized by the military as a training ground for soldiers during the war.

Built in 1929, the stadium lauded as "the biggest in the Orient" was stripped of its steel roof and other metal structures to procure material for weapons.

Despite heavy U.S. air raids on Osaka during the war, Hanazono stadium miraculously escaped destruction, and after the war it was used until 1949 by the U.S. occupation forces for football games.

It was then gradually rebuilt and became one of the country's major stadiums with 30,000 seats.

Until the early 1990s the number of rugby teams in Japan continued to increase. There were more than 5,100 teams by March 1993 and nearly 167,000 players as of March 1995, according to the Japan Rugby Football Union.

After retiring as a player, Yamaguchi became a teacher at a high school in Kyoto that had trouble with delinquent students. He became the coach of the school rugby team and steered it to victory in the National High School Rugby Tournament at Hanazono for the first time in 1980. A popular television drama series in Japan — "School Wars" — was based on Yamaguchi's experience with the team.

But the boom again waned until very recently as more and more Japanese were drawn to other sports such as baseball, tennis and soccer. As interest ebbed, about 40 percent of the rugby teams in Japan either disbanded or merged with others.

But now the sport is riding another boom following the Brave Blossoms' showing at the World Cup in England, where they won three of their four group games and just missed out on advancing to the knockout stages.

Yamaguchi is hoping the current booms continues until the next Rugby World Cup, which Japan will host in 2019.

"I'm hoping all the seats at Hanazono will be filled," he said. (PNA/Kyodo)

CTB/RSM

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