What’s Holding Japan Rugby Back?

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Hold onto your hats because what I am about to say may shock a few.

The reason Japanese rugby has been held back over the years – and yes I know the Brave Blossoms are at an all time high in the world rankings but lower down the chain things aren’t as good – isn’t totally the fault of the Japan Rugby Football Union.

Yes that’s right. The JRFU may have their problems but one of the fundamental problems with rugby and indeed all sports in Japan is actually out of their hands.

For a country of 120 million it has often been noted that Japan doesn’t produce as many truly world class athletes as it should. And those it does have often benefited from overseas coaching and schooling.

And the reason is simple. The school club system does more harm than good when it comes to sport.

The way it works is that when a child enters junior high school he or she must choose one club or “bukatsu.” That can be the baseball club, the tennis club, rugby club, the brass band,,,whatever. And then for the next three years that child basically does nothing else outside his school time.

While kids in the rest of the world play three sports a year and develop basic motor and all-around sporting skills, children in Japan do one sport (if any) and they do it three to four hours a day, 350 days a year, often playing just a handful of games over the course of a year.

Not such a bad thing if you are getting proper coaching but for every school that specializes in a certain sport there are countless others that don’t have enough qualified teachers or coaches meaning the older students end up “instructing” the younger children in marathon training sessions that generally feature nothing more than drill after drill after drill.

And in those schools that don’t specialize in a sport, the school gravel playing field often serves as the rugby field, tennis courts, baseball and soccer pitch.

Things aren’t always rosy, however, at those schools that do specialize in a certain sport. Clubs often have far too many members and far few games, meaning in three years, some players may not actually ever play a game. The old martial arts ethos is also prevalent meaning coaching often borders on the barbaric.

Every year a number of children die from heatstroke from being forced to run countless laps often for making a simple error or having the audacity to ask for a water break in temperatures in the mid 30s C.

While clubs become voluntary at high school and university, the same problems of the haves and have nots exist.

For every Waseda University or Higashi Fukuoka High School with their state of the art facilities, scholarships, huge squads and professional coaches, there are dozens of other colleges and schools that struggle to get 23 for a game.

As such there are countless kids who decide they have had enough by the time they leave school or university. Those that survive often only carry on because they see rugby as a way to get into a good company and basically get a job for life.

“One of the big differences between the foreign born players and the local players in the Japan squad is that many of the locals don’t actually seem to enjoy rugby. They rarely watch a Super Rugby game when it is on TV. For them the sport is a duty or a way of life, not something to be enjoyed,” one eminent coach once told me.

And the problem is the conservative JRFU buys into it all.

One of the reasons football (soccer) has taken off is that the JFA has dared to challenge the status quo.

While rugby players can’t play for any club outside of their schools – resulting in university and even high school boys at times being prevented from playing for their country, let alone a Top League side – soccer players can join academies run by all the professional clubs at the same time as playing for their schools.

That relationship continues at university level with players allowed to play for J.League sides while studying – in marked contrast to the (non)-relationship between collegiate rugby and the Top League.

As I said, the JRFU isn’t totally at fault but they don’t help matters, preferring to keep with the system they all went through as kids.

A few years ago I did a one-on-one interview with former prime minister Yoshiro Mori, the president of the JRFU.

Now I have it on very good authority from someone who used to deal with Mori-san on a regular basis that he is passionate about Japan doing well in rugby and that he is more informed on things than he perhaps lets on at times.

But two parts of the interview show that when it comes to things such as bukatsu, summer training camps and the reluctance to follow successful sporting nations, the old “This is Japan, this is the way we do things here,” comes to the fore.

“It is human nature,” Mori said, “that when you give a rugby ball to a child he will start running with it.”

“Not in Japan,” I said.

Mori was shocked.

“I have coached in England, South Africa, America and Japan,” I told him. “The first thing I often did was throw a ball to a group of children and say ‘off you go.’ More often than not the kids would wait and then divide into teams and play a game of touch. In Japan they just waited and waited and then finally started doing a training drill that has no relevance in a game.”

As you could imagine there was silence. So I decided to get in my next dig.

“Why is rugby played or rather why do players continue training in the height of summer? It’s dangerous for one, and kids need a break. They need to recover from injuries.”

“But we are rugger men,” was Mori’s response.

“I know, so am I. But there were times when we had a bad season when it was good to take a break. It allowed us to play another sport and then come back to rugby refreshed.”

“But we are rugger men.”

“I know. But every school has a pool. Let the kids spend the summer playing water polo. It’s just as physical and is great for fitness, eye to hand coordination and peripheral vision.”

“But we are rugger men.”

Surely it’s no coincidence that Japan’s most capped player, Hitoshi Ono, still going strong at 36 and loving every minute he plays and trains, didn’t start playing rugby until he was at university.

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  1. admin says

    To M. Main:

    You make some very good points.

    To add a little more fuel to the discussion, I’m posting a link to an article by Steve Johnson who has 30 years experience with Japanese rugby:


    On my side I have three boys, two of which have been through the middle school bukatsu experience. They both ended up dropping out because they felt that there was too much time spent at practice, practices weren’t fun, games were taken very very seriously and played on sand/dirt fields that were almost impossible to get good footing on.

    In short, the experience wasn’t an enjoyable one and they opted to quit playing their favorite sport.

    Another observation, in the time that we have been in Japan, I have yet to witness a pick up game of any sorts (soccer, rugby, baseball, or basketball). Having grown up in neighborhoods where the kids were always playing one sport or another either on a team or with their friends in the neighborhood or at school, this lack of spontaneous sporting activity seems strange to me.

    I would go far to say that a leading indicator of how successful a nation will be at a sport is how many kids are out playing the sport in the playgrounds and streets, not how many hours are spent in structured practice. The first approach is driven by internal motivation and the joy of playing the game, the second approach is outward in approach that is designed by the “experts,” probably with good intentions, to allow them to attempt to control the outcome. But the experts, in my opinion, are forgetting that the foundation of success is the simply joy of the game. Extinguish that, and you have little chances long-term success.

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