Rugby World Cup: No clubhouse but there is karaoke - the club game in Japan

TGRFC Yamanashi
Tokyo Gaijin players take on a touring side from Beijing
2019 Rugby World Cup
Hosts: Japan Dates: 20 September to 2 November
Coverage: Full commentary on every game across BBC Radio 5 Live, plus text updates on the BBC Sport website and app.

Matches played in driving rain, mud everywhere and spectators with cold toes on the touchline. Then, all is made better by a warm shower followed by food and drinks with team-mates in the clubhouse after.

This will be the scene in rugby clubs across the UK as we get deeper into the season. But not so in Japan.

There is still rain, sometimes typhoons, but it is much warmer, with temperatures around 20C. Mud is nowhere to be seen on artificial pitches and the clubhouse after? There is no clubhouse, although karaoke could be on the cards later.

Rugby has been front-page news in the country after the Brave Blossoms' historic run to a first World Cup quarter-final.

Japan proved their ability against tier-one teams in the pool stage, powering past Ireland and Scotland to reach the last eight.

That fairytale was ended by South Africa on Sunday, but afterwards Japan head coach Jamie Joseph said Japanese rugby was in a good place now. It does not, however, seem quite like that at grass-roots level.

There are around 80 amateur clubs registered with the Japanese Rugby Football Union (JRFU) in Tokyo, but very few can afford a permanent home because of high property prices. Instead they rent pitches from the local council once a week.

A culture of long working days means there is rarely time to train and, with sports such as baseball much more popular, only a few clubs can field more than one team.

A 'primitive' match day

Tokyo Gaijin Rugby Football Club is a team of ex-pats and Japanese players - Gaijin means foreigner - based in the city.

On the Sunday after Japan's pool-stage victory against Samoa, they gathered at a train station in Yokohama, about half an hour from the city centre.

Due to a lack of players they were combining with another team, Odawara, to take on a touring side from Beijing, but they had to make it to the ground first.

After queuing behind a crowd of schoolchildren for a public bus, the players eventually squeezed on and made their way up the hill to the sports complex where the match would be played.

Many were playing together for the first time, including a United States fan who had come to Japan for the World Cup and found the team on social media, so they used the journey to get to know each other.

This match-day routine is perhaps why Tokyo Gaijin's club president Tommy Nasuno describes Japanese rugby as "primitive".

Although the national side has impressed on the world stage, the club game seems to be a labour of love for individuals such as 29-year-old Nasuno. There is hope that could change, though.

"Union support is the biggest issue," Nasuno said. "There's not enough funding.

"I haven't been able to gauge the effect of Japan's run yet. That being said, it has definitely lit a fire in everyone's eyes, especially the Japanese, bringing hope for the future.

"If the JRFU invests into youth rugby, we will be able to sustain this momentum and actually fight with the best and secure tier-one status?

"Only time will tell. The Rugby World Cup in four years' time will determine if it was a fluke or the real deal."

TGRFC Yamanashi
Tokyo Gaijin Rugby Football Club are one of 80 amateur clubs in Tokyo

No clubhouse, but a train station

Rugby may not be as established at an amateur level as it is in the UK, but there are of course benefits to playing in Japan.

David McElhinney, a freelance rugby and travel writer from Belfast who lived in Tokyo for two years and plays for Nasuno's team, cites matches at the base of Mount Fuji as one.

And then there is the social side to the sport. The team never miss post-match drinks, although the location is slightly different to the clubhouse he is used to back home.

"We always play on Sundays, but win or loss, rain or shine, we go for drinks," the 25-year-old said.

"We do just drink on the street outside the train station. You go in the convenience store and then sit around doing after-match things like picking man of the match.

"Sometimes you might go to karaoke if it stays on really late. It always starts at the train station but sometimes we'll go elsewhere."

'Japanese players never start the scuffles'

There are differences on the pitch too. At full-time, teams bow to each other then form a circle where the captains give a short speech and exchange gifts.

Japanese people are usually reserved and boisterous behaviour is not encouraged in society as a whole.

Sometimes a fight will happen in games, but McElhinney says there is slightly different etiquette in Japanese teams.

"Any time there's a bit of a scuffle, the Japanese will never start it and they'll always try and calm it down straight away," he explains.

"There definitely is more of an element of respect. I guess there is back home but the way we show it is going for a drink after."

'Universities are more important than clubs'

Japan beat Ireland
Japan's shock win against Ireland made front-page news in the country

One reason Japanese club rugby has such meagre resources could be that it is seen as much less important than the university game.

In January, Meiji University won the All-Japan University Rugby Championship in front of a crowd of more than 20,000 and at its peak in the 1980s the competition's final attracted more than 60,000 fans.

But club rugby does not benefit from the same prestige and McElhinney had hoped the World Cup might have provided the impetus needed to improve the situation.

"University level definitely seems more important than the club set-up," he explains.

"You can tell just from playing rugby here with the lack of funding, energy and resources to develop the grass-roots sport that there's not too much of an interest on making it a big thing.

"The pitch leaves a lot to be desired. They're mostly artificial but the worst pitches are grass because it's not tended to. There's a patch of basically gravel in front of the posts.

"Japan has known it was going to host the World Cup for a long time so they had time to get grass-roots systems in place and it hasn't happened."

'There's not enough interest to field school teams'

Rugby may be popular in some Japanese universities but Nasuno says it rarely is in schools, except for in certain regions like Osaka.

Having spent four years playing rugby while at Exeter university in England, Nasuno is well-placed to examine the differences between the British and Japanese approaches to the sport.

He explains that Japanese schoolchildren can only choose one activity to do for the whole academic year; they do not change depending on the season as in the UK.

For this reason, rugby loses out to more popular sports like baseball or football and a lot of schools do not have enough interested students to field a full team.

"In the UK you get into rugby really young," Nasuno added. "Here it's common for people to start rugby when they're on a year abroad.

"In schools, you have to make sure you have the numbers. If you don't have the interest, you can't start the club."

Has that interest been ignited by Japan's inspiring run to the World Cup quarter-finals?

Japanese fans have embraced the tournament, giving local amateur players hope that club rugby could soon be more than a select few teams playing on rented pitches in the suburbs on a Sunday afternoon.

Who knows? Maybe one day Nasuno and his side might even get a clubhouse.

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