Rugby World Cup: Countdown to Kickoff

A Richly Diverse Team Flies the Flag for Japan: That’s Rugby

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The members of the Japanese national rugby team hail from all corners of the world. Each has his own reason for playing under the Rising Sun flag, but one thing they all have in common is their aptitude for the Japanese style of game. The team’s large cohort of foreign-born players reflects the growing diversity of modern-day Japan.

A day after Japan rocked the rugby world in a shock victory over South Africa in the 2015 Rugby World Cup tournament, the Japan side’s standout player with 24 points to his name—Gorōmaru Ayumu —tweeted a message that added a new strand to postmatch commentary.

“Especially now that rugby’s in the spotlight, let’s give some of the limelight to the foreign players on the team. They’ve chosen to play for Japan over their native countries—they’re the best friends we have. They might hold different nationalities, but they’re all committed to team Japan. That’s rugby.”

The Japan team captain, Michael Leitch, was born in New Zealand and came to Japan at the age of 15. After studying at Sapporo Yamanote High School and Tōkai University, he was hired to work at Tōshiba, and took Japanese citizenship. Another New Zealand-born player, Karne Hesketh—who scored a dramatic try to turn the tables at the end of the South Africa game in 2015—came to Japan after failing to make his national team at home. After five years playing for Fukuoka-based Sanix in the domestic league, he was called up in 2014 for Japan team duty, and personally sealed the team’s historic World Cup upset one year later.

Karne Hesketh turns the tables on South Africa with a late-game try in Japan’s 2015 World Cup match against South Africa. (© Rugby World Cup 2019 Organizing Committee)
Karne Hesketh turns the tables on South Africa with a late-game try in Japan’s 2015 World Cup match against South Africa. (© Rugby World Cup 2019 Organizing Committee)

It is not that the overseas players were given any special treatment. Head coach, Eddie Jones, put them through exactly the same unforgiving training camp regimen as their Japanese teammates—with four practice sessions a day, the first starting at five in the morning.

“Eddie puts pressure on us verbally, too. His comments are an even sharper jab for the native English speakers than for the Japanese players, who hear it through the interpreter,” according to Japanese-born, New Zealand–raised team member Ono Kōsei, also a native speaker of English.

Why Are the Brave Blossoms So Diverse?

Unlike the soccer World Cup and the Olympics, Rugby World Cup players are not required to be a citizen of the country they represent. To qualify, a player must be born, or have a parent or grandparent who is born, in the country; or have been resident in the country for 36 consecutive months immediately preceding the time of playing. Another requirement is that the athlete has never played 15-a-side rugby for another country’s senior representative team or next senior representative team (a nominated seconds team).

This explains how players of different racial, ethnic, and personal backgrounds can be wearing the same jersey and emblems, singing the same national anthem before kick-off.

Leitch explains the merits of this approach. “Japan needs to forge its future together with foreigners from now on. I think the national rugby team can make a good model for that. We can communicate a positive message given our experience.”

Athletes with a non-Japanese parent or an overseas upbringing have hit the big time and stood on the winners’ podium for Japan in other sports, but the diversity of nationalities and cultural backgrounds in the Japanese rugby team has taken it to another level.

Of the players who participated in the Japan team’s June 9–July 17 training camp in Miyazaki Prefecture, Koo Jiwon hails from South Korea and Wimpie Van Der Walt, Grant Hattingh, and Pieter Labuschagne from South Africa. New Zealand-born Hendrik Tui graduated from Japan’s Teikyō University, and Samoan-born and New Zealand–raised Timothy Lafaele from Yamanashi Gakuin University. Both also now hold Japanese citizenship. Takushoku University graduate Uwe Helu, born in Tonga, and Fijian Anise Samuela have also naturalized as Japanese.

The members of the “Wolfpack” extended training squad for this year’s World Cup warmup matches. Labuschagne leads the way. (© Jiji)
The members of the “Wolfpack” extended training squad for this year’s World Cup warmup matches. Labuschagne leads the way. (© Jiji)

Some on the team already had experience playing in other countries. Lomano Lava Lemeki was born to Tongan parents who had migrated to New Zealand, but was raised in Australia and came to Japan as a professional player. He then met and married his Japanese wife, and has taken Japanese citizenship. William Tupou—also born in New Zealand to Tongan parents—has experience playing in a 13-a-side rugby league in Australia and also for the Tongan national team.

Of the 41 participants in the Miyazaki training intensive, 20 were born abroad. Some were raised in Japan, or based there from an early age. Some have Japanese citizenship, others do not. But regardless of nationality, all are welcomed equally as teammates. The team embodies diversity.

A Tough Decision for the Captain

The central pillar of the team, Leitch, is a New Zealander with Scottish roots on his father’s side and a Fijian-born mother who migrated to New Zealand. He himself chose to move to Japan when he was 15. He explained his initial motivation. “When I was back in New Zealand, I practiced with some Japanese players who were over to study there, and I couldn’t believe how good they were. That made me want to try playing rugby in Japan.”

At the time, Leitch was a skinny teen who probably lacked the physical strength and intensity needed to go head-to-head with many of his New Zealand peers. But that just stimulated his interest in Japan, where the players were smaller, but “incredibly good.” He had not just chosen a lower-ranked country as his last resort.

A Japanese friend from childhood introduced Leitch to Sapporo Yamanote High School and he made his move to study there. He built himself up with constant training, the good, fresh fare of his homestay family, who ran a sushi restaurant, and the butter-laden loaf of bread he devoured every night before bed. On the unfamiliar grassless fields of Japan, he collected regular wounds as he trained relentlessly to create the powerful physique, technical prowess, and indomitable spirit for which he is now known.

Leitch while at Tōkai University. He was almost unrecognizably slight, but won his first national cap at the age of 20.
Leitch while at Tōkai University. He was almost unrecognizably slight, but won his first national cap at the age of 20.

When it came to it, Leitch did agonize over which country he should represent: his birth country, New Zealand, his mother’s birth country, Fiji, or where he had chosen to live, Japan. He had three options.

“I was conflicted because I didn’t feel 100 percent New Zealander or 100 percent Fijian. People see me as a foreigner in Japan, but I had something of the same feeling when I went back to New Zealand. I found it hard to feel accepted into the group there for a while.”

There was nothing to separate the three. He ultimately chose Japan because it was the place that had fostered him to become what he was.

An Aptitude for “Japanese Rugby”

It makes total sense that Leitch ended up becoming captain of the Japan team. The multinational and multicultural makeup of the team is respected, but it is also ultimately a Japanese-style team.

To give an example, consider Wimpie Van der Walt. At 188 centimeters tall, he is large in Japan but categorized as small in South Africa, where people are much taller on average. The strengths he struggled to be recognized for at home—getting to the ball as soon as it fell to the ground with his whip-fast reflexes, and the mental strength to go in low to hit and tackle time after time—did not involve overwhelming opponents with size. But it is precisely because he aimed to win by overcoming his size “handicap” that his skills were acknowledged in Japan.

Similar stories are common currency among team members. With 15 different positions and roles, rugby offers a wide range of opportunities for players to shine in their own way.

Michael Leitch (left) made his contribution to Japan’s 3-win, 1-loss result in the 2015 World Cup in England as team captain. He was out of the team for a time after the tournament, but was named captain again after his return in 2017.
Michael Leitch (left) made his contribution to Japan’s 3-win, 1-loss result in the 2015 World Cup in England as team captain. He was out of the team for a time after the tournament, but was named captain again after his return in 2017.

Leitch says he is always telling his five-year-old daughter that it is good to be different. In his words, “It’s not necessarily good to do what everyone else is doing. It’s good to try doing something different. Don’t let it worry you.”

So it is not a matter of Japanese and non-Japanese; everybody is different. Every one of us is unique. We need people with different points of view so that when we hit a wall with one approach, a new idea can lead to a new solution, and even kick-start a new era. Individuals with differing perspectives and ideas can join forces and find a way to confront even the most formidable enemy they could never tackle alone. That is the added value diversity brings.

In the rapidly approaching Rugby World Cup, the players in the Brave Blossoms jerseys will be embodying that added value as they lay everything on the line against their formidable on-field opponents.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Michael Leitch, at center, in Japan’s November 2018 test match against England at Twickenham Stadium. Japan succumbed to the home team 15–35. All photos © Ōtomo Nobuhiko except where otherwise noted.)

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