Kamaishi, located along the northeastern coast of Honshu, Japan’s largest island, is arguably the country’s most famous rugby town. With a population of just over 36,000, this Iwate Prefecture city lives and breathes rugby. Kamaishi is also a strong candidate venue for Rugby World Cup 2019.
Rugby News Japan (RNJ) recently had the opportunity to talk with Mr. Hiromitsu Nagata a sports writer, ex-highschool rugby player, current rugby expert, and supporter of Kamaishi rugby. Mr. Nagata has published the monthly magazine Rugby! Rugby! since 2010 and is a founding board member of Scrum Kamaishi, which supports rugby in Kamaishi.
RNJ: When was rugby first played in Kamaishi?
Nagata: The Shinnittetsu Kamaishi Rugby Football Club was established in April 1959. Before that, there were some high school clubs in Iwate prefecture, such as the Iwate-Kogyo (Iwate technical high school) who used to play at Hanazono for the high school championship. But at that time, rugby hadn’t yet caught on in Kamaishi.
People in Kamaishi started to seriously follow the game of rugby just after Shinnittetsu Kamaishi won the first Japan Cup in January 1977. On Oct. 7, 1981, New Zealand’s Ponsonby Club came to Kamaishi to play one match against Shinnittetsu Kamaishi at the Kaminashima ground.
At that time there wasn’t a suitable stand for spectators, so a temporary one was built. However, so many people turned out that according to local newspapers many spectators had to watch the match from the roof of the nearby apartments, which were used to house workers from the Kamaishi Steel Company.
The game was very close, with Kamaishi leading 6-3 at half time. In the end, Ponsonby powered back to win the game 19-13.
Kamaishi also played against the French national team which included Serge Blanco at the National Stadium when they came to Japan in 1984. Much later Blanco sent a large package of winter clothes to the people of Kamaishi after the earthquake in 2011.
Nagata: Shinnittetsu Kamaishi were the most memorable side as they won the Japan Cup an amazing 7 times in a row from the 1978-79 season thru the 1984-85 season.
RNJ: Who are some of the most famous players in Kamaishi history and what where their accomplishments?
Nagata: The most famous player is Yuji Matsuo, who played as a stand off for both Kamaishi and Japan. In 1983, with Matsuo playing as fly half and leading as captain, Japan played a very close match against a Wales XV losing 24-29 at the Arms Park in Cardiff.
In January 1985 Matsuo was the player coach for the Kamaishi side. Even though he had injured his ankle, he decided to play in the Japan Cup final against Doshisha University. Playing in front of 62,000 spectators, Kamaishi won the match.
After that victory, Matsuo announced his retirement. He later became a well known celebrity and now serves as an ambassador for Kamaishi City.
In the historic match against Wales XV there were five other players from Kamaishi who played the full 80 minutes for the Japan team including props Jiro Ishiyama, and Koji Horaguch, flanker Michihito Chida, centre Hideo Kobayahsi and fullback Naoyuki Tanifuji.
Jiro Ishiyama has been the chairman of NPO Scrum Kamaishi since 2011, and is working very hard to see Kamaishi is selected as a host venue for the 2019 RWC.
Unfortunately, Koji Horaguchi died in 1999. He is deeply missed by his teammates.
Michihito Chida, who rushed 20 metres from a scrum to score try late in the seocnd half in the Wales match, now lives in Kitakami city in Iwate and works to help develop local rugby.
Hideo Kobayashi who changed his family name to Sumi lives in Nagoya, and now is the president of food compay named Chitaka International Foods.
Naoyuki Tanifuji lives in Sendai in Miyagi, and, in spite of being over 60 years old, still occasionally plays rugby and is a superb runner.
Shigetaka Mori, player coach in 1981-82 and centre three quarter for both Kamaishi and Japan, is also well known as an older Kamaishi player. He has since coached a Fukuoka high school rugby team, and coached Japanese winger Kenki Fukuoka in his high school days. Mori is also the president of the Mori Glass Company.
RNJ: What is the current status of rugby in Kamaishi? Any chance it will ever rejoin the Top League?
Nigata: Due to a recession and a down turn in business in 2000 Nippon Steel decided to no longer fund their own rugby team. A year later the Kamaishi Seawaves were formed with support from the local community and businesses.
To date the Seawaves have failed to join the Top League. This season the Seawaves won the Top Challenge 2 as runners up in Top East League to reach the Top Challenge 1. In the Top Challenge 1 Seawaves lost two games in a row against Honda Heat and Kyuden Voltex. However, they beat Mitsubishi SagamiharaDynaBoars in their final game 27-26.
They will now play Kubota Spears on Feb. 14 at Kumagaya for a place in the league.
The Seawaves faced a severe crisis after the earthquake. Suffering from the heavy damage, the people in Kamaishi can no longer afford to support the Seawaves.
The team had received approximately half of its support from sponsorship money from local companies and individual supporters. Even though Nippon Steel strongly supports the team, the Seawaves have lost almost one third of their funding since 2011.
That is the reason that Scrum Kamaishi was created in May 2011. Scrum Kamaishi solicited donations and does volunteer work to support the Seawaves.
The crisis of the earthquake and tsunami has passed. However, the people in Kamaishi don’t have the same interest in rugby as in the past. Priorities have shifted to rebuilding homes, finding work, feeding families, and moving out of the temporary shelters.
RNJ: Why would Kamaishi be a good venue to host Rugby World Cup 2019 matches?
Nagata: There are three reasons.
Kamaishi is well known as a rugby town among many Japanese, especially among those aged 40-60-years old. Most of them watched and were moved Kamaishi’s seven consecutive championships.
Kamaishi’s victory reminded many Japanese who were working in big cities like Tokyo and Osaka of their hometowns. And, in spite of the unsophisticated appearance of Kamaishi players, Kamaishi demonstrated excellent rugby, beating both college and larger foreign teams.
Also, many foreign players have lived and played in Kamaishi including Andrew McCormick, Pita Alatini, Danny Kaleopa, and Scott Fardy.
And, as I have mentioned, Kamaishi has long history of overseas connections with rugby players and teams. They have shown their fondness of this city and the people of Kamaishi have welcomed them.
Even foreign players who have played against Kamaishi, including Serge Branco and Franc Mesnel who made large donations after the earthquake in 2011, still remember the city.
Lastly, playing RWC 2019 matches in Kamaishi would be a great way to boost the spirit and bring hope to the people of Kamaishi.
Many people in Kamaishi have suffered since the earthquake, and now want to restore their hometown. Most people have been very eager to rebuild their houses, town, and infrastructure.
In 2001, Kamaishi had a population of 46,000 population. However, it has now shrunk to only 36,000. Many young people leave Kamaishi after they graduate from high school because there aren’t many jobs or opportunities to attend university in the city.
Building a new stadium and running it after 2019, will bring opportunities for many people here to work in their hometown.
RWC 2019 is not just a goal for Kamaishi but a kickoff for the city’s future.
RNJ: How was Kamaishi affected by the earthquake and tsunami of 2011.
Nagata: In addition to what I mentioned previously, I would like to note that Seawaves’ players including Alatini and Fardy were working for and with the Kamaishi people. They helped to deliver food, water, and many relief supplies to those that needed help.
I heard that after the March 11 tsunami the Seawaves’ players who were living together in the clubhouse received many supplies from other Japanese rugby clubs including Suntory, Panasonic, and others. But the players were most grateful for the supplies that were sent from Kyuden Voltex because they included some bottles of Japanese shochu!
Copyright 2015 Rugby News Japan