Japan set to host ‘special’ World Cup as rugby steps into the unknown

CNN  — 

Japan has been a quiet presence on rugby’s international stage for decades, but now the Far East nation is set to soak up the limelight.

New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, France and the UK have hosted the Rugby World Cup in the tournament’s 32-year history, but Friday’s curtain-raiser between Japan and Russia – the tournament’s first game on Asian soil – will mark a step into the unknown for the sport.

The World Cup runs from September 20 to November 2 and will see 20 teams contest 48 games at 12 different venues. It’s the start of a year-long period in which Japan finds itself at the center of the sporting world’s gaze, with the rugby event a precursor to the 2020 Olympics.

“I think the world can learn so much from Japan,” Michael Leitch, captain of the country’s rugby team, told CNN Sport earlier this year. “They’re so respectful in everything they do.”

The past four years have seen Japan procure rugby pedigree, in no small part thanks to an astonishing victory over South Africa at the 2015 World Cup, widely considered the biggest shock the sport has ever seen.

Nowadays, the Brave Blossoms regularly go toe-to-toe with rugby’s familiar force, despite Japanese internationals having not yet been granted fully professional status.

So how did the sport find a foothold in Japan? And what can we expect from a World Cup in Asia?

READ: How Wales created a home-away-from-home in Japan

Japan’s rugby boom

Look at a map of established rugby-playing nations, and Japan stands on its own as the sport’s main Asian outpost. Rugby’s origins in the Far East date back to English influence in the late 19th century, and the sport began to grow through the 1900s thanks to universities and, later, big industries.

Today, the Top League – Japan’s semiprofessional rugby league that supplies most of its international players – is comprised of corporate teams, specifically from iron, steel, auto-making, and manufacturing industries which employ the players.

“If you’re a factory worker and doing eight-hour shifts, how do you then keep occupied in these compounds and how do you get physical exercise after working in quite arduous factory settings?” explains Helen Macnaughtan, chair of the Japan Research Center at SOAS University of London.

“When you think about where Japanese ideas on employment and teamworking have grown from, those core values of commitment and loyalty and inclusivity have been quite strong in corporate history in Japan … rugby’s growth definitely springs from that.

“Players are recruited now, of course, for their sporting prowess, but because it’s semi-professional, they might still have a role in the company. It might just be a few hours a day, but then most of the time will be spent training.”