HOW THE EARLY HISTORY OF RUGBY IN JAPAN WAS “LOST”

I was not the first person in recent times to have come across the article in the January 26 1866 issue of the Japan Times about the founding of the Yokohama Foot Ball Club (YFBC), which is the main information based on which we are celebrating YC&AC rugby’s 150th birthday. I easily located and copied it after finding it cited in a 1994 Japanese language book about the English and French “occupation” forces in Yokohama from 1864 until the beginning of the Meiji Restoration.

Thinking that 1866 was very early I quickly checked the early history of the famous clubs in the rest of Asia found that no club started before the YFBC and that the YFBC was therefore the first club to be founded in Asia. I published my findings in an article in the commemorative program for the 2009 tour to Japan by Oxbridge RFC and presented copies to the JRFU together with a copy of the full page of the 1866 newspaper containing the article on the YFBC’s foundation meeting.

However, the conventional history of rugby in Japan, at least since World War II, has been that rugby was introduced to Japan by Cambridge University graduates Ginnosuke Tanaka and Edward Bramwell Clarke who taught Keio students how to play the sport and arranged Keio’s first game against the YC&AC in Yokohama Koen in 1901. The JRFU’s version of rugby history does acknowledge that British soldiers played the sport in the 1860s but it doesn’t take their contribution seriously and ignores the contribution by the civilian residents of Yokohama at that time.

For almost seven years now I have gathered and published more information on early rugby in Japan and passed the information to senior officials of the JRFU, many of whom I know quite well socially. However, the JRFU officially still refuses to show any interest in my research.

This raises an interesting question: Why does the JRFU refuse to acknowledge the early history of rugby in Japan and how did the story of Keio’s preeminent role in the history come into being in the first place? Is it simply because no one in the JRFU wants to take the responsibility for admitting that the story they have been promoting for so long is wrong? Is it because the organization does not want to accept that non-Japanese were really the people who introduced the sport to Japan?

After many years of pondering this issue, an analysis of early YC&AC monthly magazines – The Bulletin – which was restarted in 1952, led me to the conclusion that the answer is very simple: the real history of rugby in Japan got “lost” as a result of World War II, probably with the help of the 1923 earthquake which destroyed the city and a lot of its records including copies of those early newspapers.

The few pre-war YC&AC members who returned to the Club after the war found all the club’s records gone, presumably destroyed, and thus the club lost its history. The early issues of the bulletin show old members living overseas sending in stories about the past of the club and its members, and attempting to revive the club’s lost history. There was a series of stories called ‘Glimpses of the Past’ which covered all aspects of the early history of the YC&AC.

One of those was W. A. “Tommy” Tomlinson. In 1954 the Bulletin published a letter from him, part of which refers to the start of rugby in Japan. His letter included a copy of one of the letters recently sent to the Times by F. P. L. Fickling, whom he calls “an old Interporter,” in response to its article about “Japanese teams who were recently introduced to the game” and featuring a photo of “Rugby football in Japan.” The letter from Fickling, who may have been the first KR&AC man to promote the “rugby in Japan started in Kobe” line, contains the following: “In about 1929, Mr. P. L. Spence [ed: a Kiwi who captained the KR&AC team in the 1900s], who was regarded as the father of Rugby football in Japan, was presented with a silver cigar box in the shape of a Rugby football to commemorate, I think, the twenty-fifth anniversary of the introduction of the game. In the 1920s, inter university games were fierce, unrelenting games of a high standard and the foreigners had to turn out teams of very good quality to be able to hold their own.”

This indicates that in 1954 no one was sure about the early history of rugby in Japan and even the KR&AC in Kobe started claiming they introduced rugby to Japan.

It is, in fact, the contemporary English newspapers published in the late Edo and Meiji periods that offer the best evidence of the early rugby history but it was not until the opening of the Yokohama Archives of History in 1984 that a large collection of copies of these papers were gathered in one place and made easily accessible.

Meanwhile, the Bulletins published in 1966 contain no reference to the events of 1866, and there was no YFBC 100th anniversary celebration that year. It is clear from the above that the Club was still in the process of rediscovering its history which continues today.

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