Back to CNN content Sponsored Content by YOKOHAMA
© 2017 Cable News Network. Turner Broadcasting System Europe, limited. All Rights Reserved. Terms of service Privacy guidelines Ad choices About us Contact us Work for us Help

As one of Japan’s initial gateways to the west, Yokohama has a propensity for firsts.

The first beer brewed in the country, its first ice cream and home to the nation’s first daily newspaper, the Yokohama Mainichi. In 2019, it will host a first Rugby World Cup final outside the traditional rugby powerhouses.

  • Yokohama Harbour
    Yokohama Harbour
  • Yokohama Ferris Wheel
    Yokohama Ferris Wheel
  • Chinatown
    Sankeien Gardens
  • Sankeien Gardens
    Chinatown
  • Yamate Motomachi
    Yamate Motomachi

For two main reasons, it is a befitting location for such a task. For one, International Stadium Yokohama is the nation’s biggest with a 72,000-seat capacity, a venue that played host to the Football World Cup final back in 2002.

But more importantly, Yokohama is the beating heart of Japanese rugby, as well as its birthplace.

72,000
seats

The romantic notion is that the game originated at Keio University at the behest of Edward Bramwell Clark to engage bored students in 1899 although there is some conjecture on the sporting origins with documentary evidence that the game was introduced to that pocket of Asia by foreign settlers in the mid to late 19th Century.

Some 1,000 soldiers from Britain’s 20th Regiment’s 2nd battalion, stationed in Yokohama in 1864, are thought to have been responsible for Japan’s first game of rugby at the behest of a group of officers.

As its place as World Cup final host, the city and wider region remains the fulcrum to both the fifteen and seven-a-side versions of the game.

Indeed, Yokohama’s role in the development of rugby in Japan cannot be underestimated. Many of the Sakura Sevens (Japan’s women’s sevens team), who have qualified for the upcoming season’s World Sevens, originate from Yokohama while the nationwide college system – with the prefecture central to that – is a hotbed at producing the nation’s next crop of Top League and international players.

For all the promise, hosting the Rugby World Cup in Japan is not without its risks. Not previously regarded as a rugby country, it still boasts 125,000 participants and 3,361 clubs.

And World Rugby is using it as a platform for a wider impact in Asia.
One Million Asia is aimed at getting that number of new players taking up the game in the region, with China another key target market in that current drive.

For World Rugby CEO Brett Gosper, the focus of this World Cup is very different to that of the last in England in 2015.

He told CNN, “2015 was the record-breaking World Cup. It’s not going to be record-breaking in the scale that England was. But, certainly Japan see themselves as ground breaking, that’s the new context – the first time in that context, the first time in that country.

It will be culturally very different to any World Cup we’ve had before, it’ll feel different. They’ll play on that difference to make it feel spectacular.

Match information has yet to be announced but the great unknown is on who will turn up. Rugby bosses both in Japan and globally are confident the combination of international interest and nationalistic pride, in part helped by the historic victory by the Brave Blossoms, Japan’s men’s side, over South Africa at the last World Cup, will boost sales immeasurably.

But tournament director Alan Gilpin is aware of the risks: “It’s not just the first World Cup in Asia, it’s the first World Cup outside of the traditional rugby strongholds."

However, he confidently added, “So, that definitely presents some challenges. It creates some nervousness. Will we have sold-out stadiums, will we have the same level of audience engagement? The answer is ‘yes’.

I think they will turn up in their droves not just to watch Japan but to watch the World Cup in their home city.

To whip up that support, a 46-day tour begins on 20 September across the nation with the Webb Ellis Trophy, culminating in its arrival for the Test between Japan and Australia, the World Cup runners-up, at International Stadium Yokohama on 4 November.

4 Nov

Kanagawa

International Stadium Yokohama

Japan vs. Australia match venue

5 Nov

Kanagawa

International Stadium Yokohama

Japan vs. Australia match venue

6 Nov

Kanagawa

International Stadium Yokohama

Japan vs. Australia match venue

7 Nov

Kanagawa

International Stadium Yokohama

Japan vs. Australia match venue

8 Nov

Kanagawa

International Stadium Yokohama

Japan vs. Australia match venue

4 Nov

Kanagawa

International Stadium Yokohama

Japan vs. Australia match venue

10 Nov

Kanagawa

International Stadium Yokohama

Japan vs. Australia match venue

11 Nov

Kanagawa

International Stadium Yokohama

Japan vs. Australia match venue

12 Nov

Kanagawa

International Stadium Yokohama

Japan vs. Australia match venue

13 Nov

Kanagawa

International Stadium Yokohama

Japan vs. Australia match venue

14 Nov

Kanagawa

International Stadium Yokohama

Japan vs. Australia match venue

15 Nov

Kanagawa

International Stadium Yokohama

Japan vs. Australia match venue

16 Nov

Kanagawa

International Stadium Yokohama

Japan vs. Australia match venue

To whip up that support, a 46-day tour begins on 20 September across the nation with the Webb Ellis Trophy, culminating in its arrival for the Test between Japan and Australia, the World Cup runners-up, at International Stadium Yokohama on 4 November.

Much of the popularity for a home audience may depend on how the hosts fare in Pool A. Despite being ranked 11th in the world, both Ireland and Scotland are ranked above them and are the favourites to be the two sides to qualify from the group.


Rankings as of 31 October 2017

But Japan are no strangers to being giant killers. It was under the tutelage of previous coach Eddie Jones that they downed the Springboks, a result that spun Japan and the world into a frenzy, everyone from Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling to 2003 World Cup winner Jonny Wilkinson tweeting their astonishment.

Jones is now in charge of England, and arguably the best versed coach on the complexities of playing in Japan.

The son of a Japanese mother, Jones’ preparations are as much cultural as they are physical for the players.

Leaving no stone unturned, he has employed Dr Sherylle Calder, aka ‘The Eye Lady’, to improve the hand-eye coordination of his players, while instilling in his players and coaching staff the importance of native traditions.

In a recent interview with The Telegraph newspaper in England, Jones said: “For the staff in particular it’s a case of understanding Japanese culture. There are certain customs in Japan, which are hard to understand for an Anglo-Saxon. You need to be able to pick up that vibe quickly.”

Rugby looks destined to take off in Yokohama and wider Japan in the build-up and beyond the World Cup.

Former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, who led the World Cup bid, believes it plays perfectly to the nation’s traditions, or as he put it, “In rugby, one person doesn’t become a star, one person plays for all, and all play for one”.

Japan’s foreign-born players, who have qualified by residency, are all too aware of the traditions, with Michael Leitch and Amanaki Mafi among those bowing to the crowd after a match.

Rugby remains dwarfed by football. But interest in rugby is rising, an average crowd of 5,000 people watching Top League matches last season, with even the Emperor and Empress visiting Prince Chichibu Stadium to watch a National Championship match, raising the popularity of the oval-ball game.

Rugby is even more relevant in a wider context now with its place on the Olympic programme with Sevens.

Yokohama has for 150 years been a portal to the Western world. In 2019, rugby will merely be its latest gateway.