YC&AC’s Role as the Birthplace of Rugby in Japan

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(Located in Yokohama and with a history dating back to 1868, YC&AC is recognized as Japan’s oldest athletic club and the direct source of several modern sports in Japan including cricket and rugby. This article is the second part of a two-part series. Part one will be posted in the near future.)

In the concluding part of a two-part series investigating the multi-sport YC&AC’s earliest roots, Mike Galbraith spotlights the establishment of Yokohama Foot Ball Club in 1866.


Of the four Yokohama sports clubs that were “amalgamated” in 1884 to create YC&AC in an initiative that on the surface at least was headed by the rugby club and led by Edgar Abbott, everyone knows Yokohama Cricket Club was founded in 1868. Of the others, Yokohama Baseball Club was founded in late 1876, although I haven’t yet found any story in the local newspapers about it, while Yokohama Amateur Athletics Club was established in 1873.

The oldest of the four main clubs for land-based sports which amalgamated was that founded as Yokohama Foot Ball Club (YFBC) on Friday, 26 January 1866. The Japan Times newspaper reported in detail what happened in the meeting at the Racquet Court Bungalow close to what is now Motomachi, and also provided some background in quite a long editorial. The editor at that time was Charles Rickerby, and he is mentioned as taking a role in the meeting when he seconded the appointment of Mr. Monk to be the Honorary Secretary.

Interestingly, the editorial refers to the meeting in the future tense but the news section refers to it in the past tense and says the meeting “was held this afternoon at 2 o’clock pm,” which suggests Rickerby rushed back to his office, added the story and then went to press. No doubt based on the Japan Times story, the London and China Telegraph ran a short story in its April 5th

1866 edition: “A Foot-Ball Club has been successfully established in Yokohama, more than 40 names having been put down as willing to support it, and a meeting to arrange ways and means was held on 26th January.” January 2016 will be the 150th anniversary of the founding of the rugby1 club that can be followed in contemporary records and images2 through the years until it merged with the other three clubs to form YC&AC in 1884.

YFBC/YC&AC: Asia’s Oldest Rugby Club

There are many things about YFBC’s founding that are worthy of note: (1) It took place less than six years after non-Japanese were first permitted to reside and do business in Japan in mid 1859; (2) It is the first foreign team sports club established in Japan; (3) It is almost certainly the first football club established in Asia making YC&AC the oldest club in Asia; (4) It is possible that no other football club of the rugby rules variety (I will come back to this) founded before it has as much contemporary documentary evidence relating to the founding; (5) It took place almost four and a half years before the first official game of rugby took place in New Zealand in the town of Nelson in May 1870; and (6) Until a researcher found a newspaper article mentioning the establishment of Neath Football Club before 1866, it appeared that YC&AC had a longer rugby history than any of the famous rugby clubs in Wales, which is regarded as one of the birthplaces and traditional homes of rugby. (7) It took place over four years before the founding of the Rugby Football Union in London in 1871 and, of course, before the rules of the game were formulated shortly after.

Rugby history japan

Lord Walter Talbot Kerr, one of the distinguished
founding members of the YFBC,
as depicted by Spy for the 8 November
1900 issue of Vanity Fair

If we add all this up, it means that the YC&AC rugby team has one of the longest almost continuous histories as an independent open club (as opposed to a school or university) in the world of rugby and I think it would be timely if YC&AC recognized this and launched an initiative to reclaim its rugby sporting heritage from the dustbin of history to which it seems to have been consigned.

Compare the significance of the above points to what is worthy of note about the founding of Yokohama Cricket Club (YCC), in 1868: (1) YCC was founded less than ten years after non-Japanese were first permitted to reside and do business in Japan in mid 1859; (2) YCC was the first cricket club founded in Japan; (3) YCC was the first sports club to negotiate the rights to use the ground it played on and to import turf and prepare a nice surface; (4) Due to point 3 above, YCC thereby became the focal point for early land-based western sports in Japan; (5) YCC created in Yokohama Koen and then later in Yaguchidai (present location) one of the finest cricket and sports grounds in the East.

In terms of Japanese history, YCC clearly notched up a number of firsts, and on the strength of points 3 to 5 above has always been considered the sole origin of the multi-sport YC&AC facility or venue as we know it today. However, the sport of cricket was already hundreds of years old and there were already many cricket clubs in Asia and other parts of the world. Meanwhile, even Asian Interport cricket between Hong Kong and Shanghai had already started in 1866. Thus the significance of the founding of YCC is relatively small when compared with the regional and even world rugby significance of the 1866 founding of the football club.

It is also interesting to compare some other aspects of the founding of the two clubs. The football club appears to have been founded in a very open manner, with Rickerby’s sentence in his Japan Times editorial that “more than 40 names have been putdown as willing to support a Football Club,” suggesting there was some form of public canvassing to gather those names before the meeting to found the club was held. As there was little to do in Yokohama in the daytime and businesses were only busy around the time of the arrival and departure of the mail boats, it is very likely that most of the people on the list of names were packed into the Racquet Court Bungalow for the meeting.

We cannot be sure that all the people named in the article attended the meeting because it states that the secretary “was desired to communicate” with the five members elected to the committee which suggests that not all of them were actually present.

Those stated as being present are W. H. Smith, Mr. Campbell, Capt. Blount, Mr . Monk , Mr. Price, Mr. Rickerby, and Mr. Baker, but Capt. Rochfort, Lord W. Kerr and Mr. Dare (most probably George Dare) may or may not have been actually present.

On that day there were still only a few hundred British resident s in Yokohama and so most of those forty-plus names woul have been men in the army and navy. Around 800 from the XXth regiment lived in a camp on the Bluff. The most prominent among the men mentioned in the proceedings were two aristocratic officers from the XXth, Capt. Richard Blount and Capt. Charles Gustavus Rochefort, and Lord Walter Talbot Kerr, who was a young lieutenanton H.M.S. Princess Royal. Kerr went on to be the last Naval First Lord, the top man in the Royal Navy, and inherited the title Lord Lothian among other titles.

This perhaps accounted for the fact that the meeting seems to have been very formal and conducted according to Westminster parliamentary procedures. In contrast, the founding of the YCC seems to have been a closed affair organized by 22-year-old J.P. Mollison in his living room or dining room. We have the names of five people being present, but others notable like W. H. Smith and the journalist Rickerby, who had both played in Japan’s first cricket match in 1863 and were involved in the founding of the rugby club, were conspicuously absent.

But Was It Rugby?

Rickerby refers to the presence of “two or three Rugby and Winchester men in the Community,” which suggests that the rules to be formed by the YFBC would likely be similar to those of the Rugby School rules. I have been unable to identify the name(s) of the Rugby man or men in the community. Could the Rugby School alumnus George Hamilton have been present? The earliest evidence to date of Hamilton being in Japan is his presence at the founding of YCC in 1868. In January1866 Hamilton, who left Rugby School in 1862, was either 20 or 21, which makes him very young to come to Japan as a civilian. However, his father was a prominent businessman involved in trading with Asia, with offices in Singapore and Yokohama until that business suddenly collapsed in 1865 bankrupting him.

It is not impossible the young George Hamilton was sent out to see if he could do anything to save bits of the business. Hamilton played football right through until the establishment of YC&AC in 1884, and a month before the amalgamation the Japan Weekly Mail mentioned that “The club may be congratulated on having had a very successful season, notwithstanding that no foreign matches could be arranged.”

But was the football being played in Yokohama from 1866 really being played according to rugby school rules or similar? The football rules followed by football clubs both inside and outside of the UK usually depended on which schools the key club members had attended and there was a lot of variation on the rules which could easily be and sometimes were modified by club members.

I think it is clear that the presence of George Hamilton and his fellow Rugby School alumnus James Evan Fraser in the football club in the 1870s and also the presence of alumni of Marlborough College like Edgar Abbott meant the rules played by the footballers in Japan were similar to those of Rugby School.

The newspaper reports on football games give few clear hints as to how the game was played. However, one telling line appears in the report on the first game of the season in November 1873, which reads, “Mr. Abbott having caught the ball made a good run through his opponents and, with a fine drop kick, scored a goal for the Settlement.”

Time to Celebrate!

I call on the YC&AC board and members to accept that one of the key roots of the Club is the football club established in January 1866, and to start taking a leading role in planning and facilitating appropriate celebrations in Japan of the 150th anniversary of rugby in January 2016.

I suggest a special dinner be held on Saturday, 30 January 2016 preceded by one or more prominent matches and that we try to attract some significant figures from the rugby world, especially from the Japan rugby world.

In December last year I visited the UK’s Marlborough College whose alumni include three key men in the early history of rugby in Japan — Harry Rawson, provider of the first first-hand evidence of rugby in Japan, W.H. Smith (“Public Spirited Smith”), and Edgar Abbott. They are planning to bring their 1st XV and under 16s XV to Japan in early August 2016. Hopefully they will play games at YC&AC and hold functions.

Discussions with Rugby School regarding a tour to Japan in 2016 are also underway. I am sure that the descendants of some of the prominent figures in the founding of the football club would also be interested in attending. I have mentioned the anniversary to a direct descendant of Lord Walter Kerr, and he has indicated he may well be interested in visiting Japan for the anniversary.

The 150th anniversary of Japan’s first rugby club in Japan offers YC&AC a great opportunity to enhance its reputation and at the same time help raise the profile of rugby in Japan and the nation’s rugby profile in the world at large. 150th anniversaries like that of the founding of the rugby club in 1866 and the cricket club in 1868 do not come around often. The next equivalent opportunities will not come until 2066 and 2068, so let’s celebrate!


1 Skeptics may try to say that the rugby played in Yokohama was not played according to Rugby School rules. That’s partly no doubt because Japan’s rugby historians have turned a blind eye to Japan’s early rugby history, and certain soccer historians have tried to help themselves to bits of it.

2 The “A Football Match at Yokohama, Japan” print which was published in both the Graphic and Harper’s Weekly in 1874 presents clear evidence of rugby being played and even reveals a flag showing the letters “YFC.” There is a furl in the flag suggesting there may well have been an extra “B” in the actual flag, thus spelling out the existence of the club.

3 Almost every club has gaps in its history due to wars, etc. What I think was the worst gap was in the late 1880s and early 1890s after George Hamilton retired and left for the US, when William Sutter, the captain of football, was for a few years unable to get enough players for rugby matches and decided the only thing to do was to switch codes and play soccer because it required only 11 players a team rather than rugby’s 15.

This article first appeared in the March 2015 issue of YC&AC Connect, the magazine of the Yokohama Country & Athletic Club (www.ycac.or.jp). We republish it here under a different headline with the kind permission of the author and YC&AC.

© Mike Galbraith. No part of this article may be republished either online or in print without the express written permission of the author.

Rugby News Japan 2015

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  1. admin says

    From the World Rugby website:

    Kanagawa Prefecture and Yokohama City
    Venue – International Stadium Yokohama, Capacity 72,327
    Yokohama’s long international connections go back to when its port was opened to the United States, the Netherlands, Russia, England and France in 1859. Beginning with these countries, the international influences shaping Yokohama’s culture have created a truly unique and enjoyable city. It was the link to England that resulted in the origin of rugby in Japan. British soldiers stationed in Yokohama began playing rugby for amusement, leading to the founding of the Yokohama Football Club in 1866. A match took place here in 1873 between garrisons, England versus a Scotland-Ireland combined team. Yokohama’s international sports events since have grown in scale and sophistication, including the final of the FIFA World Cup 2002. Yokohama is confident that it will present Rugby World Cup 2019 with a fitting stage for many passionate fans.


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