According to most Japanese historians rugby was first introduced to Japan when Ginnosuke TANAKA and Edward B. F. Clarke started teaching students of Keio Gijuku University how to play the sport in 1899. In December1901 Keio played its first ever game against the Yokohama Country & Athletic Club (YC&AC) on the cricket ground in Yokohama Koen.
However, there is clear evidence that a form of rugby-rules football was being regularly played in Yokohama and in Kobe much earlier than 1899.
There is also contemporary evidence that football (not soccer) was played by Japanese students of the Imperial College of Engineering (now part of Tokyo University) in the late 1870s. One British professor wrote that ‘ a football club was got up” and “the students showed great interest, getting indeed so excited as to play at random in utter disregard of the rules of the game.” Unfortunately, these football games do not appear to have continued for long.
Therefore Keio Gijuku deserves full credit for being the originators of the unique student rugby culture that still dominates the entire sport in Japan today although it should be noted that their Japanization and Bushido-ization of the sport was closely modeled on Japanization and Bushido-ization of baseball in the early 1890s by the First Tokyo Higher School (Ichiko) and other schools.
Some writers claim that rugby caught on fast after Keio introduced the sport but, remarkably, it was over 10 years after the Keio students started to play the game before the next Japanese teams were formed and the location was not in Tokyo, home of Keio, or Yokohama or even Kobe but in the former imperial capital of Kyoto.
The second student team to seriously take up rugby was the Third Higher School (Sanko) in Kyoto which began playing rugby in 1910 but doesn’t seem to have formally created a club. Sanko later became Kyoto Imperial University which states its rugby club started in 1922. A large stone in Shimogamo Shrine (not far from Doshisha High School) bears an inscription describing how the sport was first played in the Kansai (western Japan) by Sanko students in the grounds of the shrine under the guidance of a Keio rugby player. Although its name suggests it is a high school, many of the students of Sanko, like those of Ichiko, were in their early twenties. Sanko first played Keio in April 1911, losing 39-0 and Doshisha first played Keio in January 1912 losing 24-3. For almost the next ten years, only these three Japanese teams and the YC&AC and KR&AC foreign teams were playing the sport in Japan. Both Sanko and Doshisha quickly narrowed the gap between themselves and Keio but neither could win in the period up until around 1920 and During WW1 these fixtures were not played.
Like the students of Keio who were dedicated to beating the YC&AC, the Sanko students were soon dedicated to beating the local KR&AC rugby team in Kobe.
Capt. W. Pyne-James, who captained the KR&AC for several years, told his son that in 1913 when the KR&AC arrived at Sanko’s ground for a game, he was surprised to find over 2,000 students were dressed in rugby kit and ready to play. One of the high points in early Kyoto rugby history came in 1922 when Edward, Prince of Wales and later King Edward VIII, came to watch a game between the KR&AC and Sanko.
However, the focus on student rugby was on university rugby. Doshisha High School, founded in 1911, claims to be the first high school in Japan to play rugby and the book “100-year history of Doshisha University Rugby Team” states that the first real game of high school rugby (under 18s/19s) in Japan was played on June 5 1912, less than two months before the end of the Meiji period between Doshisha Jr High (now Doshisha high school) and Kyoto Daiichi Jr High School (now Rakuhoku high school).
Jr. High Schools in Japan were, in fact, just as slow as universities in taking up the sport. Nevertheless Kyoto deserves more recognition for its role in the survival and development of rugby in Japan during its critical incubation period.