Japan’s surprise last-minute defeat of the Springboks in the Rugby World Cup last year was glorious. South Africans were a bit put out but soon recovered, and that game is now legendary around the world for Japan’s courage, skill and daring.
In Japan, only 900,000 people watched the game live. That jumped to an astonishing 25 million for the team’s next match, and by the end of their pool games, a quarter of the country’s 126-million population had watched a game.
Now the island country prepares for a sterner test: hosting the World Cup in 2019.
“You ask what are my concerns?” the CEO of Japan Rugby 2019, Akira Shimazu responds over a cup of hot, green tea at his stadium office in Tokyo. “They are many.”
His gaze is direct as he ticks them off on his fingers.
“This is the first rugby cup in Asia. The first in a non-traditional rugby country.”
“We were told by World Rugby that the England World Cup was record-breaking and ground-breaking (‘it broke the ground’ says the translator) and we must do better. But it is difficult for us to have the same style and do it the same way. We have a unique Japanese way to do things.”
“Then we are far away, very far away from England, Europe and South Africa. People must travel far.”
A shortish, squat man, built like a brick outhouse, Shimazu’s expression does not change much. But his eyes light up when I ask if he is optimistic. Sepp Blatter, I tell him, always maintained South Africa’s Football World Cup would be ‘the best ever’ despite many doubters.
“You know Invictus?” he asks. I nod. Everyone in Japan mentions the movie based on John Carlin’s book. The man responsible for the success of Japan’s Rugby World Cup says, “Our cup will be Invictus 2. Yes, Invictus 2!”
Shimazu is flanked by two of his lieutenants for the tournament. They don’t say much, it being the Japanese way to allow only the CEO to speak in a meeting until he invites them to contribute. All three are hugely optimistic, while aware of the many problems.
I am in Japan with two objectives: to see if Japan is ready and keen on rugby, and to see what problems tourists from Africa might face.
Tokyo’s brilliant new international stadium will not be ready on time because of cost overruns, so the final will be played in nearby Yokohama, about a 45-minute drive from Tokyo.
This is a city that’s keen on tourism, keen to host the Springboks, keen to host the media center, as they did for the Football World Cup in Tokyo.
Kozue Nakayama has a fancy title of Director General, Culture and Tourism Bureau, City of Yokahama. She assures me the city is taking the rugby very seriously.
“The final game will be at our Nissan Stadium. We are the city with the best relations with Africa,” she says proudly. “We will have to prepare all our signs in English, for the rugby and the 2020 Olympics the following year. And we have a program to teach all our taxi drivers to speak English by 2019.”
Her English is excellent. Seems ambitious to teach all the taxi drivers, but this is a city that decided all schools in its precinct must study at least one African country.
So what is like for visitors to Japan from Africa?
This is the third-biggest economy in the world, a first-world country where things work, where stuff is expensive, where a language barrier exists and where food is different.
It is also the most polite society on the planet, people are incredibly helpful, trains run on time, and nobody dreams of answering a cellphone on the train as it may disturb others.
I ask young South Africans studying for Master’s degrees, courtesy of the Japanese government, to tell me of their difficulties and experiences.
“This place has the most amazing food,” says Patrick Leslie, doing a Master’s in Business Economics. “Appointments to companies here are lifelong commitments, by both sides. The whole culture is based on trust. And on ‘how can we help each other?’ which is great to experience.”
“You certainly don’t need a car, just hop in a taxi or bus or train, it will take you home. And it is always safe.”
Randall Reddy, studying a Master’s in Civil Engineering (Mechatronic train dynamic systems) at the University of Tokyo to go with his Master’s in Mechanical Material Sciences, says Japan is all about networking.
“They use resources well, don’t waste them. It is not about fast cars, it is about living well.
And the food is fantastic – I have put on five kilograms. You don’t have to give up red meat, there’s a lot of it. You end up with a great variety of food. Nor does it have to be expensive.”
Leslie chips in: “More restaurants now have English menus, and by the rugby in 2019 and the Olympics in 2020 they will all have.”
So what should I tell people at home?
“Tell them come see the Boks take the World Cup back… Tokyo no longer makes the top 10 most expensive cities. It’s not cheap, but not too bad. Japan has not had inflation for 20 years. You can find bargains everywhere. And no tipping.”
Sushi in Japan is a very different experience from sushi outside the country, yet the essence is the same. At a restaurant the chef will talk to you about the fish he serves you, one piece at a time. He chooses it, you do not, he puts on wasabi and soy, you do not – only the Americans ask for extra wasabi, one chef tells me conspiratorially. And once that happens, the chef will stop chatting to them.
At a very small (8 seats) restaurant in the earthquake area of Ishinomaki, where the tsunami took away his original restaurant, I ask the chef if he knows about rugby.
“Yes,” he says seriously. Then looks at me, and adds: “We beat you!” with a roar of laughter.
To give you a small taste of the exaggerated Japanese politeness you encounter everywhere, all the time, my guide on the Shinkansen train, traversing Japan at about 300km/h, explains to me in a normal voice in the First Class compartment how to eat eels.
The train manager came next to us, then, to my surprise, knelt on both of his knees in the corridor next to our seats, as if to royalty.
A man of about 45, he apologized profusely, bowed deeply while kneeling until his head almost touched the floor, then lifted his arms and placed one hand over the other in a T-shape. The horizontal top hand then pushed the vertical bottom hand down a little, then a little more.
This was his way of asking us to be a bit quieter, as we may disturb passengers by talking instead of whispering. Profuse apologies for asking us to be quiet. Extraordinary.
In a hotel lobby, if you ask for anything, the person will often run to get it. Run, not walk.
Of course cheap hotels are a bit different. You can get a four-sleeper for about 10,000 yen ($90) in Tokyo, but beds are right up against each other, really four duvets on a floor with a communal shower. But neat, tidy, clean.
So will Africans flock to Japan to support Kenya or South Africa or Namibia? Should they?
The first answer is hopefully they will, and the second a resounding “Yes!”
The 2019 World Cup may be the next Invictus and it may not be. Whatever happens, Japan is ready.