OFFICIAL RECOGNITION OF BEGINNINGS OF RUGBY IN JAPAN IN YOKOHAMA, WHY IT TOOK SO LONG AND ROCK-SITTING

Days before the eagerly awaited RWC2019 commences, Yokohama City will commemorate the city’s leading role in the start of rugby in Japan and Asia by unveiling a plaque. This article takes a look at the background to this event and why such post-WW2 recognition took almost 75 years.

On September 5 there will be a ceremony in a small park in Yokohama’s China Town to unveil a marble stone commemorating the start of rugby generally and also the founding of Japan and Asia’s first club playing football by a form of rugby rules – the Yokohama Foot Ball Club – on January 26 1866 in the nearby Racquet Club Bungalow at Yamashita-cho 127. The rugby-loving former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori will do the honors in the ceremony attended by many leading local rugby and government dignitaries.

The plaque will read as follows:

                         The Birth Place of Football (Rugby) in Japan Yokohama

The Yokohama Foot Ball Club (YFBC)-Japan’s and Asia’s first ever rugby club-was founded close to this spot on 26th January, 1866. The establishment meeting was convened at No.127 Yamashita-cho by British military officers and western residents of the Yokohama Foreign Settlement.

In 1884, YFBC merged with the cricket (est.1868), athletics (1872) and baseball (1876) clubs in Yokohama to form the Yokohama Cricket and Athletic Club (YC&AC), which was located until 1909 in Yokohama Park. Now called the Yokohama Country & Athletic Club, YC&AC is still playing rugby and other western sports in Yokohama today -in Yaguchidai.

On 7th December,1901 the first ever rugby match involving a Japanese team was played on the Cricket Ground in Yokohama Park between YC&AC and Keio Gijuku (Keio University). Rugby had been introduced to Keio students in Tokyo in 1899 by two Cambridge University graduates: E. B. Clarke, a lecturer of English born in Yokohama,                                                  and Ginnosuke Tanaka.

After the opening of the port to foreign trade in 1859, Yokohama quickly became Japan’s largest international settlement. Nearly every western sport in Japan today, including athletics, baseball, cricket, hockey, horse racing, rugby, soccer and tennis, was first played in Yokohama, mostly in the Yamashita-cho and Yamate-cho areas of the Foreign Settlement.

Under the supervision of the Yokohama Archives of History, the Rugby Football Unions of Kanagawa Prefecture and the City of Yokohama, along with YC&AC have erected this plaque marking the birthplace of rugby in Japan as part of preparations for the Rugby World Cup 2019, which is being held in Japan (and Asia) for the first time this year.

The plaque will also display an image of the well-known illustration ‘Football Match at Yokohama’ of a form of rugby being played in what is now called Yokohama Koen.

I would like to start this month’s essay by thanking and praising YC&AC member Mr. Tsutomu ‘Tommy’ Nagai for his extraordinary energy and the determination he has exercised behind the scenes to make the historic September 5 event in the field of Japan’s rugby history on September 5 happen.  Tommy has appears to have done everything almost singlehandedly while simultaneously being involved in a major digitalization project covering at least part of the archives of the Japan Rugby Football Union (JRFU) including its publications. He also his own research projects involving Japan’s rugby history and has been supporting my efforts in many ways like translating some of my writings and even arranging some of those translations to be surreptitiously  included in official documents published by the unions.

There is an old Japanese proverb which can be loosely translated as ‘Sit on a rock (or stone) for three years.’ The wisdom behind it is that in Japan one should be patient and not expect quick results. In the case of the starting point in the history of rugby in Japan I have been sitting on a rock for almost exactly 10 years for it was in 2009 that I came across the Japan Times (no real connection with the current Japan Times) articles about founding of the club in 1866 in the Yokohama Archives of History. Weeks after this discovery I visited a senior official in the Japan Rugby Football Union and gave him a copy of the entire page with the story and explained the significance. Over the years since then I have met and even drunk with many leading figures in Japanese rugby including past and present top officials of the JRFU and other rugby unions. Some have shown interest for a shorts time, but it mainly Tommy, a director of Kanagawa Rugby Football Union, who has offered wholehearted support.

So with rugby history it has been a matter of sitting on a rock for 10 years and if Tommy hadn’t shown interest, I think I would have died on that rock.  One might think this is a problem caused by being non-Japanese in Japan but the story was different in the case of the Japan Cricket Association (JCA) and my discovery of the ‘lost’ first cricket match played in 1863 when the cricket history of Japan had long been said to have started in 1864.  I happened to announce the discovery in a speech at an after-match function at the YC&AC in August 2012 after a cricket match between the YC&AC and a JCA team at which the JCA president, Naoki Miyaji, was present.  I contacted Miyaji-san a couple of weeks and explained the 2013 would be the 150th anniversary of that first ever game.  Soon after he decided to quickly arrange a 150th anniversary tour to England and Scotland which the Japanese community in the UK including the ambassador supported and the national cricket team was invited play at Lords for the first time ever, albeit on the Nursery Ground.  Even more remarkably, Miyaji-san also agreed to issue a challenge to the Royal Navy for a 150th anniversary rematch and in the end a Royal Navy cricket team and part of the Royal Marines Band arrived in Japan on HMS Daring and came to the YC&AC in December 2013. These events showed how it is possible to leverage past history to the benefit and enhancement of the present and future. In the case of cricket history I was only sitting on that stone/rock for a couple of weeks.

Of course, rugby is more popular than cricket and has had a longer history and higher profile as well as having a much bureaucracy to run it. Before WW2 it must have been reasonably widely known that the YC&AC rugby section and up until 1884 its predecessors the Yokohama Foot Ball Club and the Yokohama Football Association were playing various forms of rugby in the 19th century because some of the early participants were still alive around 1930. For example, when George Hamilton, who left Japan in 1885,  died in 1929, YC&AC founder J. P. Mollison wrote a eulogy letter that was published in the ‘Letters to Editor’ section of a local newspaper which stated that Hamilton was the ‘captain and great mainstay of the rugby team.’ Mollison himself lived into the 1930s.

So did the period of prior to E. B. Clarke and G. Tanaka introducing rugby to Keio students in 1899 get written out of the country’s rugby history, and, if so, why did it did it get written out of the history?

Currently, the leading Japanese rugby historian is generally considered to be Hiroshi Hibino, a former national team player and national team coach. Hibino’s monumental 816-page Japanese language work called The Complete History of Rugby in Japan (2011) contains not even a single word on anything rugby or football-related that happened before the start of rugby at Keio in 1899. In fact, Hibino-san once said to me that he had no idea that forms of rugby had been played in Japan before it was introduced to Keio. His book is basically an attempt to create a compendium of every tournament and its match results ever organized by the JRFU.  Of course, the interport rugby matches between the YC&AC and KR&AC – Japan’s oldest regular annual rugby fixtures until the KR&AC became unable to form a team – were not organized by the JRFU and that might explain why they were covered by Hibino and the fact that the two foreign clubs didn’t participate in JRFU sanctioned tournaments may have been a factor too. However, at the beginning of the book two of the matches involving the YC&AC are covered in some detail with the names of the Japanese players listed up regarding the first ever game played in December 1901 while coverage of the first game Keio ever won – against the YC&AC in November1908 – includes the names of the players.  The KR&AC’s early matches against Keio get a little coverage too.

How could it be that the country’s leading historian didn’t know about the rugby and football activities of the YC&AC before 1899?

One reason is that the main interest of Japanese rugby players in rugby history has long been focused on their own club rugby histories rather than national histories and this may be attributed to the fact that compiling such histories was seen as a key part of the significant anniversary celebrations .  For example, I am in possession of copies of the 25th anniversary history of the Doshisha Rugby Club and the 30th anniversary history of the Waseda Rugby Club – the latter was likely produced because it was not possible to make one for Waseda rugby’s 25th anniversary in 1943. It was not until the 1960s that a serious effort was made to produce a history of rugby in Japan by Ban Kayama and the JRFU he was the leading figure of.

WW2 was a much more important factor in loss of rugby history. The foreign sports clubs in Yokohama and Kobe were sequestrated by the Japanese authorities late on the in war and when they were returned to the foreign communities, most of their records and photographs were missing. Japan’s leading cities were heavily bombed by the American bombers at the end of the war and the destruction was pretty comprehensive which meant that not much in the way of Japan rugby-related documents from the past survived. The YC&AC’s buildings were destroyed and the KR&AC was probably hit too. Meanwhile, most of the members of these clubs whose countries were fighting Japan returned home and only very few returned after the war.

Those, like Mike Bielous’ father Serge and Edward Bernard’s father, who struggled revive the foreign sports clubs in the 1950s were faced with the problem that few historical records had survived.

Some of those ex-members in the UK collected stories and information they could find and gather at home on at least the early history of the club, and sent what they found to Japan where it was included in articles in the post-war club magazine launched in 1952.  Reflecting the dire situation regarding the facts of Japan’s early rugby history, amongst the documents sent was a copy of a ‘letter to the editor’ that had appeared in the London Times on December 29 1953 in response to publication a month earlier of a photograph of the rugby team of HMS Tyne playing a rugby match against a Japanese team. What provoked the writer of the letter was the caption to the photograph which stated that Japanese rugby teams ‘were only recently introduced to the game.’ The letter, by a Mr. Fickling then living in Kuala Lumpur, included the following words which might surprise current YC&AC members but clearly illustrate the situation regarding rugby history in Japan even among non-Japanese YC&AC and KR&AC members who should have been more knowledgeable:

‘In about 1929 Mr. P. L. Spence, 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 fact, although the statement is factually incorrect, it is understandable that P. L. Spence, who was a KR&AC member living in Kobe and refereeing most of the games in the area, was so highly regarded: between about 1912 and 1918  Kansai  was the main centre of rugby in Japan – until Waseda created their team in 1918 there only two rugby clubs, including the YC&AC, in the Kanto area and Keio would travel down every year to Kansai to play the teams there which increased the number of games played there.) It is interesting to note that the club’s Bulletin published the story about the letter presumably with the idea that it was great news that rugby in Japan have been written about twice in the Times but the editor in Yokohama and also the sender of the letter clearly didn’t know it was factually incorrect because if they had known they would surely have said so.

It was the post-war discovery of the existence of the wonderful 1874 illustration of football in Yokohama that provided irrefutable visual evidence of the playing of rugby-style football in Japan before 1899 that led to start of a degree of acknowledgement of pre-Keio rugby history. 

The English language references to the country’s early history of rugby in Japan’s international programs throw some light on exactly when JRFU officially changed its position on the understanding of that history.  Shigeru Konno, the key UK-educated international figure in Japanese rugby from the 1950s until the turn of the century, wrote English language articles covering the history of rugby in many Japan-side programs when important foreign teams toured Japan.  These indicated that between 1969 and in 1972 Konno became aware of the existence of the 1874 illustration. , and accepted the fact that football was being played in Yokohama as early as the 1870s. 

In the September 1969 Souvenir Programme for the Duke of Wellington’s RFC 1969 Japan Tour, he started his article with Japan’s long held view and the words ‘Rugby was first introduced to Japan in 1899.’ However, in the programme for the Australian Colts’ Japan Tour in March 1972, the first words are: ‘It has been proved that the British in Japan mainly in Yokohama and Kobe had played the game before this time (1899). It is said that there is an old print in existence showing a match in progress in 1874. How long before, or after this date, the game was played in Japan has never been recorded until 1899…’ In subsequent programmes Konno makes similar references to pre-Keio rugby but, unfortunately for Japanese rugby history, his English articles were likely read by only a few Japanese because English was a difficult foreign language for them.  In spite of Konno’s articles, the sub-title of a Japan rugby history article in a 1979 international match program indicates that the JRFU switched back to the old Keio story about the start of the sport: ‘Rugby was first introduced into Keio University in Japan in 1899.’

This apparent determination of the JRFU to ignore basic facts and focus on the ‘rugby started with Keio University’ story suggests one more reason why Hiroshi Hibino might not have known about the early history:  Regarding the introduction of western sports to Japan, it seems that the Japanese nation prefers to have a kind of legend about the start of each sport where a non-Japanese, often supported by one or more Japanese, introduces the sport and then disappears leaving the Japanese to develop their skills by themselves.

The story of Clarke and Tanaka introducing rugby to Keio and the reluctance of the JRFU to update its history has its parallel in the history of baseball in Japan. Several years ago I went to the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum and gave them my evidence that the Yokohama Baseball Club was formally founded in 1876, two years before Hiroshi Hiraoka supposedly founded Shimbashi Athletic Club (SAC) which it still calls ‘the first formal baseball club in Japan.’ Personally, after finding in an 1880 American newspaper article a copy of the team photo, which they say is of the SAC team, with words ‘Tokyo Athletic Club’ on it, I don’t believe  believe  SAC ever existed and they even admitted me they don’t really have any evidence of its founding.  Regarding  the foreigner who introduced baseball to Japan, Horace Wilson still occupies that god-like position and he is still the starting point of its timeline of baseball history of Japan.

I think I am currently in my third or forth year of sitting on the rock of Japanese baseball. If any reader sees any change to the above on the museum’s timeline, please let me know so I can get off the rock.  Sitting on rocks is taking up too much time.

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