Japan’s Rugby Spirit

Perhaps it is just me, but this lockdown period seems to have gone incredibly quickly and yet, simultaneously, the pre-lockdown weeks of March seem like a distant memory. These first weeks of the month were somewhat significant for me as I was coming to the end of a short research fellowship in Kyoto and was planning my next research steps, returning to the UK and then heading back to Japan for two further periods of fieldwork. This was not meant to be as, within a week of returning, the UK went into lockdown, and the Olympics—the focus of my next fieldtrips—was postponed.

However, in spite of all the uncertainty and frustration, I have been afforded time to reflect and think more about my time in Kyoto and more specifically the Rugby World Cup around which I conducted my research. My colleague, Eugenia Bogdanova-Kummer, recently raised an interesting point: the Rugby World Cup had been perceived by many as a dry-run for the Olympics, one example of this being various police forces across the country practising their crowd control procedures. However, without the Olympic Games taking place this year, the Rugby World Cup should be given greater consideration as a significant event in its own right, rather than just a warm-up.

To that end, I would like to use the space I have here to talk about the significance of rugby in Japan and in Kyoto specifically. Kyoto was not one of the host cities for the Rugby World Cup, but the city does have a strong relationship with the sport. While baseball and football may be the most popular sports in Japan, rugby has a longstanding loyal following, with the Imperial family counting among its supporters (until recently, the de facto national rugby stadium and head of the Japan Rugby Football Union was the Chichibunomiya Rugby stadium, named after Prince Chichibu, but it was recently demolished to provide car parking for the Olympics).

In fact, rugby has been played in Japan for almost as long as the game has existed. As early as 1866, British regiments stationed in the port of Yokohama had set up a rugby club. However, it was not until 1899 that the sport began to be played by Japanese players, when the game was introduced to students of Keio University by Edward Bramwell Clarke and Ginnosuke Tanaka (who had got a taste for rugby while studying at the University of Cambridge).

In 1910, Keio University students visiting Kyoto set out to teach rugby to students of what would become Kyoto University. Due to lack of suitable space, they decided to play within the grounds of Shimogamo Shrine, and it was here that the first rugby ball was kicked in Kansai and the first game played. Today, a stone memorial marks this spot, and a sub-shrine “Sawatasha” has been erected, where the spirit of rugby is said to reside. The shrine features a rugby ball-shaped bell, and rugby ball-shaped ema hang, inscribed with wishes for success in sport. In the main shrine shop, you can buy rugby-themed omamori, too—officially licensed by World Rugby, of course. Shimogamo Shrine itself is considered to be the shrine of ball games in general, and it hosts an annual event Kemari hajime, where players dress in Asuka period costume and play kemari, a kind of keepie-uppie game originating in China.

Sawatasha rugby sub-shrine at Shimogamo Shrine in Kyoto
A game of kemari in progress during Shimogamo Shrine’s annual Kemari Hajime festival

Although no games were held in Kyoto, the city was still involved in the Rugby World Cup in a small but significant way. In 2017, the city hosted the draw for the pools, deciding which teams would play against each other in the pool stages. During the tournament itself, Shimogamo Shrine held a screening of a match by the shrine (sadly by invitation only) and my institute, the Kyoto Institute, Library and Archives, held a public screening for local residents, filling up both of its auditoriums. Moreover, while Kyoto may not have hosted any matches, the prefecture has its own claim to fame as the birthplace of Tambo ragubii, or rice field rugby, which is, as the name suggests, played in rice fields, mud and all. Played since 2015, the game has gone from strength to strength, attracting professional players, and with 15 matches played over the summer period before the Rugby World Cup.

The closest host cities were not too far away, with Kobe and Higashi-Osaka both hosting parts of the tournament. Unlike Kyoto, both of these have professional rugby teams, and Higashi-Osaka has its own dedicated rugby shrine, which is patronised by rugby team Kintetsu Liners, who are based at Japan’s oldest dedicated rugby stadium, Hanazono Rugby Stadium, which opened in 1929, the year the team was founded. What I found interesting about this shrine is that, whilst during the Rugby World Cup I saw promotional material for the rugby sub-shrine at Shimogamo Shrine, I found no such activity for the shrine in Higashi-Osaka. Instead, the shrine is nestled within a typical suburban sprawl, doing little to draw attention to itself. While as an outside observer it seemed remarkable that there was a rugby shrine at all, here it was simply part of the fabric of the town. Indeed, rugby is part of the town. Between the train station and the stadium, one passes numerous shops selling rugby merchandise, bakeries selling rugby-themed treats, other shops have rugby imagery in the windows, and houses have stickers on their doors and mailboxes. Moving away from Kansai, the city of Kumagaya in Saitama has embraced rugby as part of its local identity, and has called itself “Rugby Town” since 1991.

While rugby may not have the popularity or visibility of baseball or football in Japan, it has nonetheless been adopted and assimilated into the culture, become part of locations’ identities and even gained a kami. While I had set out to look at the Rugby World Cup in particular, I hope to be able to continue research on rugby in Japan

Dr Christopher J. Hayes
Japanese Projects Assistant, Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures

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