Rugby World Cup Japan 2019: Back to back epics for a nation’s devoted fans

Sports loyalty drives passionate emotion in Japan. With the prestigious Rugby World Cup kicking off in Japan soon — and Japan playing Russia in the first match — fans will live through weeks of intense drama leading up to the final in November.

But it is also a prelude. From July next year, the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games (which will have men’s and women’s rugby sevens) will take the stage and ardent Japanese fandom will be pushed to fever pitch.

Enthusiasm for next year’s Tokyo Olympics has already surged beyond expectation, pushing organisers to run an eleventh-hour “second-chance” lottery of tickets to cater for the unprecedented demand.

By some estimates, demand has been 10 times the size of the ticket supply. As many as 7,508,868 people signed up for Tokyo 2020 ID registrations, the first step required before joining the ticket lottery, and during the ticket application period, the official ticketing website was visited more than 24,250,000 times.

Japan’s Olympic fever has already outshone recent Olympic Games, when ticket sales were said to have languished and some events were poorly attended.

Tokyo 2020 spokesman Masa Takaya said 3.22m tickets had been sold to Japan residents in the first lottery, and more than 90 per cent of applicants went on to buy the tickets. “There was a massive amount of applications received in the first wave and this absolutely exceeded our expectations,” he added in early July.

“So in that respect, we are pleased to see such huge excitement being built up amongst people across Japan.”

Success is a ratings winner and the Rugby World Cup in Japan, the first ever held in Asia, is expected to give the sport a boost with moments of high drama and courage on display right around the corner from Japanese homes. The World Cup is rugby union’s marquee event, held every four years, and 20 national teams will compete for the Webb Ellis Cup, with fan passion driven by sports-minded patriotism.

Running from September 20 to November 2, the World Cup will include games spread across 12 cities, from Sapporo in the north to Kumamoto in the south. Japanese fans are massing.

In the last Rugby World Cup, in Britain in 2015, as followers recall, Japan’s Brave Blossoms team defeated the twice world champion side South Africa in one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history (apparently there is even a movie being made about that game).

One fan, Daisuke Komura, who had travelled to the UK for the game, was televised shedding tears and saying he was as happy as when his first son was born.

Each sport has its passionate Japanese followers. Japanese skate fans hurl Winnie the Pooh bears on the rink and shriek with adoration when figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu takes to the ice.

A baseball fan recently used the body of his young son as a “weapon’’ against rival fans when his team, the Hanshin Tigers, was beaten.

Another extremely enthusiastic baseball follower at a fan event yanked the throwing arm of his hero, Daisuke Matsuzaka, so hard that the baseball champion had to forfeit a game or two.

Meanwhile, other sports are accelerating in popularity in Japan. Japanese tennis champion Naomi Osaka won the US Open in 2018 with grace and power, managing to sidestep the emotional meltdown her opponent Serena Williams directed at the umpire.

Sales of the type of tennis racquet Osaka used rapidly quadrupled and squads of Japanese children signed on for lessons at tennis academies.

Born in 1997, with a Japanese mother and a Haitian father, Osaka has spent most of her life in the US, but she identifies strongly with Japan, and now Japan identifies strongly with her.

With the US Open win, Osaka became Japan’s first No 1 single’s tennis player. Japanese social media exploded with congratulations, including a message from Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, who tweeted his thanks to Osaka for “giving Japan a boost of energy and excitement”.

Osaka went on to win the Australian Open this year and Abe took to Twitter again: “What an impressive performance,” he tweeted. “Congratulations to Naomi Osaka on winning the Australian Open!” Her back-to-back majors captured the front pages of Japanese newspapers.

Basketball, too, has had its moments of glory. In June this year, Japanese 21-year-old Rui Hachimura was selected in the NBA draft in the US, an elevation widely thought to herald a new era for the sport in Japan. “The Birth of the NBA’s Hachimura, a huge step for Japan,” one Nikkan sports newspaper headline read.

The first Japanese basketballer ever chosen in the first round of the NBA draft, the 2.03m-tall Hachimura is the son of a Japanese mother and a father from Benin. Hachimura is likely to play an important role in Japan’s Olympics efforts in 2020 and the basketball World Cup in China this September, boosting passion for the sport in his homeland.

“One of my jobs is to represent Japan,” he told basketball website The Undefeated. “People want to see me right now. I’m everywhere right now in Japan on TV, newspapers. I am doing it for my country and the little kids watching me.”

Baseball, though, is said to be Japan’s favourite sport. Fans dress up in their team colours and other special effects (fans of the Hanshin Tigers team, for instance, wear tiger masks, tiger tails, tiger whiskers and some even have their hair done with tiger stripes).

Japanese baseball fans make a lot of noise, too, either with chants or songs or cheers. They enjoy special rituals, such as the mini-umbrella dance at a Tokyo Swallows game, when fans put up their colourful mini-umbrellas and bounce about. The 2020 Games will include baseball (and softball for women), as well as new categories karate, skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing.

So although Japan is still rising in importance among the world’s sporting nations — hampered in some events by physical size — they can be world-beaters. And the influx of foreigners of different nationalities has produced Japanese champions even in the size-oriented sports.

At the same time, Japanese sports fans rank with the most devoted and passionate in the world.

Skating devotees (often women) will fly around the world, using most of their short holidays, to see a favourite ice-skater compete. Tickets to run-of-the-mill domestic baseball games routinely sell out.

When Japan’s women’s soccer team crashed out of their World Cup earlier this year, losing to the Netherlands, Japanese fans mourned, and turned their minds to the Olympics and the prospect of winning gold at Tokyo 2020.