Home > Events, History, Reviews > Review: Brave Blossoms – The History of Rugby in Japan

Review: Brave Blossoms – The History of Rugby in Japan

As with any activity in Japan once it gains the Imperial seal of approval, formally or implied, it goes from strength to strength!

Japan Rugby replica home jersey canteburyNot having been a rugby fan and only really actively interested in the two larger tournaments, the Six Nations and the World Cup, and the more famous National sides from Europe, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, it came as something of a pleasant shock whilst on a visit to Japan in September 2015 when, with very little warning, the news media in Japan was suddenly flooded with images of their National Rugby Team dealing out a shock 34-32 defeat to South Africa’s Springboks in Brighton at the 2015 Rugby World Cup which was hosted in England.

With the enthusiasm the Japanese inevitably show when their nation successfully carries off any International sporting achievements it seemed as though the entire Japanese population had suddenly transformed into avid Rugby fans and, at the time, the shop bought replica home jersey of the Japan National Rugby Team, the ‘Brave Blossoms’ became the most sought after, and consequently sold out, rugby accessory throughout Japan.

Japan Rugby

© World Rugby Museum, Twickenham

With this very popular win, Japan’s pre-eminent place in Asian Rugby, and the 2019 Rugby World Cup taking place in Japan later this year (20th September – 2nd November) it is timely that this should be foreshadowed by the ‘Brave Blossoms’ exhibition (until the 31st August 2019) about the history of rugby in Japan at the newly re-opened award winning World Rugby Museum, in the South Stand of Twickenham Stadium, the home of English Rugby and the largest dedicated Rugby Union venue in the world.

Twickenham Rugby Stadium Copyright T Skingle

Twickenham Rugby Stadium © T Skingle

Tucked into the overall general exhibition at the World Rugby Museum but by no means subsumed by it this eye opening exhibition is full of fascinating facts tracing the arrival and development of rugby in Japan from the ending of sakoku (Japan’s self-imposed isolation when Japanese nationals had been banned, on pain of death, from travelling outside Japan) in 1853 with the arrival of Commodore Perry’s Black Ships from the USA, and afterwards the French, Russians, and British legations and the rugby playing contingents of the British staff, to the present day and the staging of the this year’s Rugby World Cup in Japan.

Rugby in Japan Entrance World Copyright Rugby Museum Twickenham

Rugby in Japan Entrance © World Rugby Museum, Twickenham

With the signing of the Treaty of Kanagawa in March 1854 Yokohama rather than Kanagawa (the two ports allocated to the foreign legations) became the principle port of access in 1859. As this was where foreigners set up their legation headquarters and living quarters it wasn’t surprising that, as the exhibition points out, this was where rugby was introduced to Japan (author’s note: along with ice cream, cricket, photography and Western fashions).

Overlaid on a large picture of rugby being played there (enlarged, coloured and reprinted from an 1874 edition of Harper’s Weekly magazine) is an 1866 quote from the Japan Times, ‘We see no reason why otherwise this fine, healthful game should not be played as well in Yokohama as in Yorkshire’; the quote from the same year that one of the oldest football clubs in Japan, and the world, was established in Yokohama.

Japan Rugby replica home jersey cantebury

Japan Rugby replica home jersey © Canterbury

As one of the general exhibits points out, linking the ‘Brave Blossoms’ exhibition with the general exhibition, with the ending of sakoku Japanese nationals went abroad in 1863 to study at overseas Universities, which resulted in 1899 with Ginnosuke Tanaka, ‘the father of Japanese rugby’, and his fellow Cambridge alumni Edward Bramwell Clarke, an expat born and raised in Yokohama, bringing Rugby to students at Keio  University in Tōkyō, where they were both lecturers, marking a more formal starting point for the popular development of rugby in Japan. From acorns mighty oaks do grow and the development of rugby in Japan resulted in the jaw dropping fact that by the 1920s there were 60,000 registered players and more than 1,500 clubs in Japan!

These very interesting facts formed the basis, for the next hour or so, of the understanding and painting of a much broader picture of Japanese rugby, one which certainly helped to develop this budding rugby fan’s appreciation of just how much rugby was played, and is now played and appreciated in modern Japan.

Rugby in Japan Copyright World Rugby Museum Twickenham

‘Brave Blossoms’ exhibition © World Rugby Museum Twickenham

As with any activity in Japan once it gains the Imperial seal of approval, formally or implied, it goes from strength to strength as is attested to by a part of the exhibition that deals with Prince Chichibu’s involvement in the development of rugby in Japan until his death in 1953. An interesting fact that runs alongside Prince Chichubu’s involvement is that to begin with the emblem of Japanese rugby was three cherry blossoms, two open and one closed, based on the premise that once Japan had played England the third bud would open which it did in Tōkyō in 1952 when Japan played against, representing England, Oxford University RFC, a fixture which was organised by Prince Chichibu, an alumni of Oxford University.

Prince Chichibu public domain

Prince Chichibu (photo: public domain)

These examples highlight and illustrate the sort of information the visitor can expect. Following the exhibition in chronological order and not haphazardly is a definite recommendation as each section builds upon the last, illuminating the historical and developing web of rugby based infrastructure in Japan, its players, clubs, management, coaching, and fan base leading up the final two sections; ‘Global Japan’, and ‘The Road to 2019’. It is here that a very revealing recorded interview with Eddie Jones, who coached Japan up to their 2015 victory over the Springboks, can be viewed. It is an eye opener for anyone unfamiliar with the often very different corporate style of management and teamwork in place in Japanese sports which non-Japanese coaches come up against, for which Eddie had a surprising solution. The interview also goes into the challenges Eddie’s faced in trying to get the National Team to do what they had done best, in their own style, rather than trying to emulate the style of other National Teams elsewhere in the world which led to a downturn in the success of their game. It is a video that is absolutely worth watching in its entirety.

All in all a completely fascinating, compelling and ‘enlightening’ exhibition well worth visiting whether a fixture is being played or not, which at extra cost can be combined with stadium tour.

Associated Press video of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe visits the ‘Brave Blossoms’ exhibition and children at Twickenham Stadium with UK Prime Minister Theresa May


World Rugby Museum Opening Times
Tuesday – Saturday: 10am – 5pm (last entry 4pm)
Sunday: 11am – 5pm (last entry 4pm)
Monday: Closed (open some bank holidays and during school holidays)

For more information and ticket prices visit www.worldrugbymuseum.com

Access: 15 minutes’ walk from Twickenham over ground station

Reviewer Profile:

Trevor Skingle was born and lives in London where he works in the field of Humanitarian Disaster Relief. He is a Japanophile and his hobbies are Kabuki, painting and drawing and learning Japanese.

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  1. March 2, 2019 at 4:25 pm

    Great work for helping the world to understand why Japan is a worthy host of RWC2019.


  1. September 28, 2019 at 3:41 pm
  2. October 8, 2019 at 2:59 pm

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