Kensuke Iwabuchi, Chairman and CEO of Japan Rugby Football Union, talks to Daisuke Tsuchiya and Misato Nasukawa about building on Japan’s string of international successes in the sport.
In 1995, Japan’s National Rugby team, the Brave Blossoms, suffered a humiliating defeat against New Zealand, 145–17, at the Rugby World Cup playoffs.
At the 2015 games, the team came roaring back to beat South Africa in the World Cup 34–32 in their opening Pool B match, an upset considered by some to be the most shocking in the history of the sport. Selected to host the 2019 Rugby World Cup, Japan was able to enter that competition as a team to watch.
Since then, rugby in Japan has taken on a new significance as a symbol of diversity and pride at home and, internationally, of dramatic change in the world of rugby: from a sport dominated by a select group of nations, to one which is welcoming a growing group of countries vying to compete against the best teams.
Today the Japan Rugby Football Union (JRFU) is led by Chairman and CEO Kensuke Iwabuchi, who was the Brave Blossoms’ general manager in the run-up to the 2015 victory.
A lifelong rugby athlete, Iwabuchi played the sport at Cambridge and professionally for Saracens, one of England’s top teams. He joined the board of the JRFU in 2015 and became Chairman in 2019. He also led the Japan Men’s Sevens Team as Head Coach at the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics. (Sevens is a popular variant of traditional rugby, featuring only seven players on each team instead of 15, and shorter periods of play.)
A historically British sport dating to the early 19th century, rugby has been played in Japan at least since 1866, when the Yokohama Football Club was formed. The nation had opened its doors to the West only a dozen years earlier, ending a period of self-imposed isolation that had lasted over two centuries. Since 1987, the country has competed in the Rugby World Cup. As host in 2019, Japan narrowly defeated Scotland and became the first Asian nation to make it to the quarterfinals.
In 2021, the Japan Rugby Football Union (JRFU) laid out plans for its future with a new Mid-Term Strategic Plan, which includes the ambition for Japan to host another Rugby World Cup. It also emphasizes the organization’s goal of maintaining rugby’s position in Japan as an agent of positive social change. To that end, the JRFU’s planning document includes its first-ever diversity and inclusion statement, with the particular goal of opening leadership positions to more women.
The JRFU also created a domestic competition, Japan Rugby League One, in response to the broadening interest in the sport among the Japanese. The league played its first games this year. Previously, the country had found regular professional competition only in the Super Rugby, along with Australia, New Zealand and several other southern hemisphere nations.
In addition to the men’s, JRFU has women’s national teams, the Sakura Fifteen and Sakura Sevens, both of which also compete internationally. The Sakura Sevens made it to the 2016 and 2020 Olympics.
Recently, Iwabuchi sat down with Brunswick’s Daisuke Tsuchiya and Misato Nasukawa to talk about the ascent of rugby in the country, the future of Japan’s rugby teams on the world stage and his hopes for changes outlined in the MTSP. Behind such decisions is an awareness of rugby’s role in Japan as a symbol of national pride on and off the field, he says.
“Promoting rugby’s core values is fundamental to our strategy,” Iwabuchi told the Japan Rugby website recently. “Historically, rugby has been seen as more than just a sport in Japan. Our fans appreciate rugby’s values of integrity, passion, solidarity, discipline and respect, values which Japanese people aspire to, as individuals, and within wider society.”