1.Rugby Fever Overtakes Japan
Our theme for the October 18th episode of Sekai e Hasshin! SNS Eigojutsu on NHK E-Tele was #RWC2019—we talked about the Rugby World Cup. For the first time ever, the Japan team made it into the final eight—winning all four of their pool A matches, no less. It’s hard to believe that only weeks ago, before the tournament started, there were worries about empty stadiums and public indifference. Instead, it feels like all of Japan has jumped on the bandwagon, consumed in the rapturous throes of rugby fever.
The panel on our show has also been glued to their TV screens, and the taping for this episode was our most genuine and upbeat yet. Our MC, Ryoga Haruhi-san, said she went down the haka YouTube rabbit hole after seeing teams like the New Zealand All Blacks perform the pre-game ritual.
Co-host and soccer aficionado Hide-san was impressed by the fact that supporters of opposing teams could sit next to each other in the stands and remain civil, and praise one another after the match was over. Commentator Furuta Daisuke-san revealed that he’d graduated from the same Fukuoka Prefecture high school as winger Fukuoka Kenki—who’s had an unbelievable tournament—and that the school has a rugby team with a long, storied history. English teacher Naito Yosuke-sensei admitted proudly that he had jumped on the bandwagon along with so many others of us.
As for me, like most Americans, I grew up having very little interest or knowledge of the English sport of rugby. The first time I really got to know the sport was—like for many Japanese—during the 2015 Rugby World Cup, when the Brave Blossoms upset the Springboks in the most dramatic fashion in a match for the ages. With this year’s world cup, I’ve well and truly gotten hooked on this gentlemen’s sport.
2.Reflections on My Street Interviews Ahead of the Japan vs. Scotland Game
During the episode we also aired some street interviews that I’d conducted near Shin-Yokohama Station hours before the Japan vs. Scotland match on October 13th. There are a number of bars and British-style pubs in the area between the station and the stadium, and when I arrived around 4:00 p.m. the streets were already bustling with Scottish supporters decked out in jerseys and traditional dress.
*A note about the U.K.: United Kingdom is short for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, a sovereign country off the northwestern coast of the European mainland that includes the island of Great Britain and the northeastern part of the island of Ireland. It is comprised of four constituent countries: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The Republic of Ireland—which has historically been Catholic—became an independent state in 1921, while Northern Ireland—the majority of whose population is descended of Protestants who’d immigrated from England and Scotland—remained part of the U.K. (The question of the constitutional status of Northern Ireland would lead to clashes between the Unionists/loyalists, who were mostly Protestants, and the Irish nationalists/republicans, who were mostly Catholics, culminating in a thirty-year period of political violence between 1966 and 1998.)
*A note about sports teams in the U.K.: England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland each have their own distinct culture, customs, and identity. While the U.K. has a single team Great Britain for the Olympics, in international sports like soccer and rugby, each of the four constituent countries has its own national team. It is noteworthy that Ireland has one national rugby team for both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. In this year’s world cup, England, Wales, and Ireland all made it to the quarter-finals, while Japan knocked out Scotland with its victory in its fourth pool A match.
As I interviewed the fans, it slowly became clear that many of them were members of a Facebook group of Scottish fans called “2019 Road to Japan". The group, which is 1,200 members strong, has been traveling Japan and posting their experiences to social media, coming together night after night at pubs near the match venues to make merry. The group also actively donates to charitable causes—for one particular night in Kobe where around 100 of them congregated at a local pub, they donated a portion of the proceeds to charities that support injured players and players forced to retire due to injuries. I realized that these were more than fans along for the ride—they were Scottish rugby supporters.
I also came across a group of English supporters who’d flown in three days prior for the sole purpose of attending the England vs. France match, which ended up being canceled due to Typhoon Hagibis. One of them, who was sporting a 必勝 (“certain victory") headband, said that while he was disappointed that the Saturday match had been canceled, he’d been thoroughly enjoying the sights and food in Tokyo. What’s more, he was in high spirits after having gotten to indulge in his second-favorite “game": karaoke with salarymen he’d encountered on the street. To that, another of the group chimed in, saying, “More important than any of that is this evening’s match. We are 100% behind Japan." His expression was dead serious.
What struck me most was how every group I interviewed expressed unreserved praise not only for the Japan rugby team but for the Japanese and Japanese culture as a whole. They had nothing but good things to say about the food, public transportation, and the general hospitality they encountered in each region they’d traveled to. When I asked a Scottish couple in their 60s what they expected from the Japan vs. Scotland game, they replied, “We’ll be cheering for Scotland, of course, but if Japan ends up winning, we will be happy for them." Now that’s what the Japanese have been calling the “spirit of no side"—the idea that after a rugby game is over, there are no friends or foes, only respect for one another.
3.Rugby vs. American Football
Despite my American upbringing (I was born and raised in California), I’ve always had very little interest in so-called American sports like football, baseball, and basketball. I was never really a sports person. I’d never even heard of the sport of rugby until we studied about the U.K. in my high school world history class.
My first exposure to anything resembling rugby was in an episode of the popular American sitcom Friends called “The One With All the Rugby". In it, mildly successful paleontologist Ross Gellar attempts to learn to play rugby in order to impress his British girlfriend Emily.
As I was doing research to prepare for my interviews, I was shocked to find out that in the 1924 Paris Olympics—the last time 15-player rugby was played in the Olympics—the U.S. team took the gold. However, in the second half of the 1920s, football would come to eclipse rugby. Today, rugby sevens—a form of rugby played by seven players a team—has a respectable albeit minority following in the U.S Nonetheless, most Americans are likely unaware not only of the fact that the U.S. team competed in the Rugby World Cup, but of the very existence of the world cup itself.
There are a variety of reasons why Americans prefer football to rugby. The biggest difference between the two sports is how the ball is passed. In rugby, the ball cannot be thrown forward—it can only be passed back. Football, on the other hand, revolves around the forward pass. (There are rules: only one forward pass per play, only eligible receivers are allowed to receive passes, etc.) Americans are all about moving forward and have a visceral reaction to the idea of retreat. They cannot stand watching a rugby team on offense struggling to move the ball forward in any meaningful way.
Another major difference is the use of padding and protective gear. Rugby players wear only minimal protection, and instead choose to temper their bodies; football players modify their bodies by wearing helmets, shoulder pads, gloves, thigh pads, and knee pads. And while many rugby supporters say that rugby is the more violent, physically demanding sport, Americans argue that football, with its shoulder-led charges and full-body tackles, is the more physical sport. (When tackling in rugby, you cannot make contact above the shoulders.)
In football, players are highly specialized and follow the orders of the head coach to a tee. Each play is short, dramatic, and showy, while the game as a whole comes across as very systematic. Meanwhile, rugby players are expected to be more adaptable, and must be able to react and make decisions during the game. While each individual play is not as showy as in football, the game as a whole has a flow and its own sense of dramatic tension. Even if it’s a blowout, the underdog will inevitably play their hearts out for 80 minutes and leave it all out on the pitch.
When watching a football broadcast, one is impressed by the commercialism: the flashiness of the graphics and the loud touchdown celebrations. While watching rugby, one is most struck by the display of brotherhood.
4.Americans Idolize Showmen, Not Sportsmen
Unsurprisingly, the U.S rugby team ended up losing all four of its pool stage matches. Curious to know what the U.S. media thought of the outcome, I hopped online and checked the websites of a number of major U.S. newspapers, only to find that there was hardly any coverage pertaining to the Rugby World Cup. Will rugby ever be embraced by the American public? (Sadly, I believe the answer is likely no.)
Gary Gold, the South African head coach of the U.S. squad, has said in interviews that the success of this tournament and its Japanese management is an encouraging story for nations looking to grow their rugby following. He believes that if the U.S. were to be chosen as the host nation for the 2027 Rugby World Cup, a rugby craze akin to the one Japan is experiencing would not be outside of the realm of possibility. (The 2023 Rugby World Cup will be held in France.) However, there are many reasons why the Japanese rugby “boom" would never happen in the U.S.
First of all, America and Japan are completely different in terms of national character. America sees itself as the center of the world, and that everybody should or does speak English. Rugby may be the world’s second most popular sport after soccer, but for many Americans it essentially does not exist. This is party due to ignorance, but it is also a product of the country’s origins: it wanted to definitively break away from England. Naturally, many Americans continue to harbor a kind of inferiority complex toward English things.
Japan, on the other hand, is an island nation in the Far East. In that way it is similar to England (and the U.K.), which is an island nation to the far west of mainland Europe with its own distinct culture. Much as there are similarities between medieval European chivalry and Japanese Bushido, there are similarities between the idea of gentlemanly behavior and traditional etiquette in Japan—the weight placed on social order and consideration of others, for example. Both England and Japan have a certain pride that comes with being a frontier nation, and that is part of the essence of rugby.
(For more about this topic of Japan as a frontier nation, check out Uchida Tatsuru’s book Nihon Henkyouron, where he talks about how the Japanese have formed their national identity. He posits that the Japanese are only able to envision how their own country should be by comparing themselves to other countries. Ultimately, he suggests that instead of striving to measure up to the global standards set by other countries, it should pursue the path of a frontier nation and figure out what it is that only it can do. )
It’s also important to remember that the Japanese possess not only the samurai spirit, but also the farmer spirit. They excel at plugging away, sticking with something and gradually achieving results. Japan’s national rugby team exemplifies that perseverance: decades of toiling away and making small improvements, culminating in their 2015 world cup victory against South Africa, and then coming into bloom at this year’s tournament.
Most Americans are not the type to stick with something and be content with minor victories. Results are everything, and winning is everything, and people are quick to move on from things that don’t seem to be working. That is the American pioneer spirit. Unless a mega-star class player were to make a dramatic entrance onto the rugby pitch, it is hard to see Americans taking to the sport as they do to football, baseball, and basketball.
Finally, I’d like to leave you with a popular maxim about rugby:
Rugby is a hooligan’s game played by gentlemen.
A hooligan is a rowdy, violent young troublemaker. While the game of rugby may be violent, players must have much more than a chiseled physique. They must have strategic and communication skills. And after the game is over, they must be able to show respect for their opponent.
Meanwhile, Americans favor a winner to a gentleman, a showman to a sportsman. Players and teams that win are expected to savor the moment with expressive and excessive celebrations, sometimes at the expense of their defeated opponent. That is the tradition of American sports. Judging by the way America is becoming increasingly isolated from the rest of the world, it’s hard to imagine rugby being embraced anytime in the foreseeable future.