Yokohama, Japan | AFP | When 70,000 fans cram into Japan’s Yokohama stadium for the Rugby World Cup final, few will be aware of the area’s rich rugby history which stretches back more than 150 years and includes one of the world’s oldest clubs.
It all started in the early 1860s when Britain sent troops to Yokohama to protect its subjects after samurai warriors slashed to death a British trader — and some of their 19th century officers turned out to be rugby fans.
According to historian Mike Galbraith, who has extensively studied Japanese rugby’s early history, the first mention of the game being played dates to 1863, only 40 years after Rugby School student William Webb Ellis famously “took the ball in his arms and ran with it”, giving birth to the sport.
As military tensions eased, the bored officers — many of them from British public schools like Rugby — took to the oval ball to pass the time.
“They started playing every afternoon because the troubles subsided and so they didn’t really have anything to do. In December 1864, there’s evidence they were playing every afternoon with a few of the civilians,” Galbraith told AFP.
Two years later, in 1866, more than 40 of these early rugby players banded together to found the Yokohama Foot Ball Club. A Japanese newspaper report from January 26, 1866, records the official establishment.
“As we happen to have two or three Rugby and Winchester men in the Community, we may be certain that we shall have really good scientific play,” said an editorial in the Japan Times.
This evidence leads Galbraith to claim that Yokohama may be one of the world’s first “Open” clubs — meaning that unlike a university or school, anyone can join.
“The Yokohama Country and Athletic Club appears at present to be the oldest open club in the world with contemporaneous documentary evidence of its founding,” he said.
– ‘Very unique’ –
There are rugby clubs that are older, acknowledges Galbraith, but they lack such strong evidence describing their creation.
“In the case of the Yokohama Foot Ball Club, there is a newspaper printed that very day describing what time it was and who the key people were and what the motions were. That’s very unique,” he said.
The game then was very different to the fast-flowing sport played by professional athletes on display during the Rugby World Cup, which culminates on November 2 in Yokohama.
The founders of the Yokohama club proposed that “hacking”, or kicking opponents, be banned, while early match reports underlined the prevalence of drop-kicking in those days.
“Mr. Abbott having caught the ball made a good run through his opponents and, with a fine drop kick, scored a goal,” reads one report from the 1873 Japan Weekly Mail.
Rugby gained a more solid foothold in Japan at the turn of the century when two Cambridge University alumni, Edward Bramwell Clarke and the Japanese player Ginnosuke Tanaka, introduced the game at Keio University in Tokyo.
With more Japanese taking up the game, the sport’s popularity grew quickly with crowds of 20,000 attending matches in the early 1930s, according to Galbraith.
– ‘Not so healthy’ –
The Japan Rugby Football Union was formed in 1926 and a national team played its first overseas matches on a tour to Canada in 1930.
In modern history, the Japanese team have been ever-present at the Rugby World Cup since the first edition in 1987, where they narrowly lost to the United States before suffering a 60-7 hammering at the hands of England.
The World Cup has seen extreme highs and lows for Japan, from a record 145-17 loss to the All Blacks in 1995 to the competition’s greatest ever upset when the “Brave Blossoms” beat the mighty Springboks 34-32 in 2015 — dubbed the “Miracle of Brighton.”
Organisers hope hosting this year’s competition will accelerate the development of rugby in Japan and Asia more widely, but low attendances for club rugby and the ejection of the Tokyo-based Sunwolves from Super Rugby have raised doubts.
And what of rugby now at the Yokohama club, where it all began?
“The status today is not so healthy,” sighs Galbraith speaking to AFP at the club, which proudly displays Japan’s oldest rugby trophy and numerous team photos on its wood-panelled walls.
A dearth of members from traditional rugby-playing nations has hit the club hard, he says. “It’s more difficult to put out a 15-a-side team to play rugby.”