Japan Rugby – Your Guide to Rugby in Japan

Rugby in Japan is on the rise ahead of the 2019 Rugby World Cup - we've got all the information you need to stay ahead of the curve.

Photo Credit: Jason Milich via Flickr cc

Photo Credit: Jason Milich via Flickr cc

On a sunny day on the British south-coast in September 2015, the world of rugby witnessed its greatest ever upset. The Japanese national side, nicknamed The Brave Blossoms, overcame titans South Africa in a cliche-deserving David vs Goliath showdown. Though favorites New Zealand were ultimately bestowed the title of champions, the story of how a second-tier side trampled over the reputation of one of the sports biggest names was deservedly where conversations over the tournament inevitably turned. The result, only the second time the national side had registered a win in a Rugby World Cup, represented at once the high-point in the ascendancy of Japanese rugby and a catalyst for its further growth. 

The sport has a long history in Japan and enjoys strong popularity as home to the sixth-largest playing population on the planet. Despite this, Japan has long been outside the rugby mainstream, rarely considered in tandem with the core rugby nations. The national side is now ranked tenth in the world, ahead of teams such as Italy and Samoa who nevertheless enjoy a more prominent place in the popular rugby imagination. But this is changing. Former England international and Tokyo Ricoh Rams player James Haskell insisting: “Japan can be a proper rugby superpower, 100%”.

In the pursuit of this goal, we’re here to lend a hand by giving you the ultimate low-down on the state of Japanese rugby today. Read on for all the info on the national side, domestic competition and the newest addition to Japanese rugby – the Sunwolves. Plus, useful advice on how to get to a game.

Japanese National Rugby

Photo Credit: Jason Milich via Flickr cc

Photo Credit: Jason Milich via Flickr cc

Competing in every Rugby World Cup since its very beginnings in 1987 but with little success up until now, The Brave Blossoms have had a somewhat rough ride. Their first victory in a World Cup came in 1991 against Zimbabwe, followed by two draws against Canada in 2007 and 2011. It was not until the 2015 win against South Africa and the two subsequent wins against Samoa and the United States that the side really staked its claim as a major player in the sport. 

As 100/1 outsiders to beat a strong South African outfit, the Japanese players won by no fluke, outgunning and outwitting the opposition throughout the game. Full-back Ayumu Goromaru was man of the match for many, scoring an immense 24 points from a total of 34. Though the country is not known for its outbursts of ecstasy, the streets of the capital were noticeably buoyed by the victory, especially around the home of Japanese rugby, the National Stadium in Tokyo’s Aoyama district.

The aforementioned Ayumu Goromaru was one of the stand-out stars of the tournament, cementing his place at the top of international rugby. Now the highest paid rugby union player worldwide, the full-back earns his money at New Zealand’s Queensland Reds though is tipped to make a big-money move to France in the near future. If the money and prestige wasn’t enough, ‘Goro’ as he’s known to his fans, has also had a gold statue cast in his likeness and a baby giraffe named in his honor. 

Another factor lighting a fire under Japanese rugby has been the announcement that Japan will be the host nation of the 2019 Rugby World Cup. The sport will likely be hoping to emulate the success enjoyed by soccer following the FIFA World Cup in 2002, which was split between Japan and South Korea. Beating off rival bids from Italy and South Africa, the competition will be a major building block in the development of the sport more generally in the region. With the cup should come a new generation of players and fans, heightened national consciousness toward the game and welcome material benefits such as cutting edge training and match facilities at grass-root and professional levels. 

Getting to a game

Watching the Japanese national side live presents difficulties but is definitely possible. Outside of an international or regional tournament, the side play irregular friendly and warm-up games against a range of sides throughout the year. Check the schedule here, for match dates, times and locations. If not residing in the country full-time, having your trip coincide with one of these games would be fortunate, though stranger things have happened. 

Friendly games are great as a preview of a side’s capabilities, but lets face it, the real excitement comes when there is something at stake. As well as the World Cup, Japan also compete in a number of lesser or regional tournaments. Check the schedule here for full listings. Tickets for games hosted in Japan will likely not require you to book tickets in advance, merely turn up on the day and head to a ticket counter. If you’d like to secure a ticket ahead of time however, click over to the JRFU website where guidance is available in English. With the next World Cup 3 years off, tickets are not yet available. The official World Cup site has the key details so far disclosed so check here regularly to keep abreast of news regarding the tournament. 

Domestic Rugby 

Photo Credit: Tsutomu Takasu via Flickr cc

Photo Credit: Tsutomu Takasu via Flickr cc

The highest level of Japanese domestic rugby is the Top League. The competition is an industrial league, whereby all the teams involved are owned by private companies who financially support the teams and their players, with some players even being direct employees of the companies themselves. The Top League then is fairly unique, at least set against the top-level leagues in Europe and Australasia. 

The set-up of the competition has presented equally unique problems however. Foremost, the composition of the teams themselves. Teams employ both full-time professionals and amateurs who manage to hold-down regular working responsibilities on top of their sporting duties. This quirk has largely meant that the league has traditionally been deemed to be lacking in terms of quality and ‘star-appeal’ compared with foreign competitions and has led to a lot of native talent migrating overseas to play for teams of greater prominence. Though things are changing. 7% of Top League players now hail from abroad and all the signs show that this figure is only likely to grow. Though the official rules state that a side can only field two foreign players at any one time, the influence foreign talent can have on the overall quality of the league is palpable. Foreign players and coaches alike bring experience and an outside perspective that can nurture the league as a whole and boost its international standing. 

Getting to a game

The Top League is on the rise then and is well worth checking out should you be in the country. Top teams include: the Panasonic Wild Knights of Ota City, Gunma prefecture, who have been crowned champions for three seasons running, Tokyo’s Suntory Sungoliaths and the traditional big-guns – the Kobe Steel Kobelco Steelers. Wherever you find yourself however there is sure to be a team within reach. Check out the league schedule here and for tickets either turn up at the stadium on the day or contact the host club directly, though you may need the help of a Japanese speaker. 

The Sunwolves

Photo Credit: Tsutomo Takasu via Flickr cc

Photo Credit: Tsutomo Takasu via Flickr cc

The newly established Sunwolves are the newbies of the international rugby landscape. Alongside a team from Argentina, they are the latest additions to Super Rugby – the international competition designed to pit the best teams in the world against one another. The Sunwolves are the first Asian team to be admitted to the league, with 2016 as their first season involved.  

The club have the potential to further enliven Japanese rugby ahead of the 2019 World Cup, though this is largely dependent on the kind of reaction and support they receive. Criticism has been thrown their way regarding the decision to play a number of home games in Singapore already, and should the team flounder on the pitch, more could be hurled in their direction. But cynicism aside, the team is a great piece of maneuvering by the nation’s rugby governing body; further internationalising the image of Japanese rugby and potentially preparing the ground for success on home soil in 2019. 

Getting to a game

Sunwolves tickets are acquired easily from the official website and on the door. Standing tickets start at just 1000 yen. 

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Jack Heslehurst

Jack Heslehurst

Tokyo-based writer and editor, originally from the UK, with a special interest in politics, history and travel.



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# Things to Do in Japan # Japan Travel Tips

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