Earliest evidence of British army officers and Yokohama non-Japanese civilians playing football regularly in Yokohama, Japan in the mid-1860s
If you were a historian researching the history of sport, just about the last place on earth you would look for basic information would be the British Medical Journal (BMJ)…..…. and you would never for one moment imagine that a volume 1 issue of the British Medical Journal could contain important historical information about the earliest playing of the sport of ‘rugby’* even in Britain, less alone the country which was then still ruled by a Shogun backed by samurai swordsmen – Japan.
Astonishing as it may seem, page 386 of the BMJ issue published on April 15 1865 (issue number 224 of volume 1 – the current issue published September 3rd 2016 is issue number 8,071 in Volume 354!) includes the following words in a description of Yokohama in 1864: “During the present cold weather, there is football every afternoon on the Bluff, well attended by residents and officers.”
These 19 words are the earliest evidence of football being played on a regular basis in Yokohama. In fact, at present they are the only direct contemporary reference to the sport actually being played between 1864 and around 1870.
What is interesting about this reference is that it clearly indicates that a significant number of people were very keen to play football in Yokohama at the end of 1864, that this number included civilians, that they were, remarkably, playing every afternoon, and that they were playing on the Bluff – the hill above Yokohama where around 1,500 British soldiers, mainly from the XXth Regiment, were encamped from early 1864 in order to guard the foreign residents of Yokohama from attack following the Namamugi Incident of September 1862 when Charles Lennox Richardson was slashed to death by samurai.
This year happens to be the 150th anniversary of the founding of what is today widely recognized as the first ‘rugby’ club in Asia and Japan. The significance of this becomes clear when you consider that the Rugby Football Union (RFU) in England, which drew up the laws of rugby and called the sport ‘rugby’, did not come into existence until 1871, that the first official game in New Zealand didn’t take place until 1870, and this predates the founding of the first ‘open’ club in Wales.
The evidence regarding the football club comes from a place you would expect to find such evidence – a local newspaper in Yokohama which reported the news of the foundation of the Yokohama Foot Ball Club with an editorial stating that 40 people had registered their interest in supporting the club and mentioned that the residence of at least one alumni from Rugby School meant they could play the sport ‘scientifically.’ Sadly no other reference, except for one or two references to the desirability of a ground to play football, have been found in the surviving local newspapers of the period.
One might ask “How did this happen to be published in the BMJ?” The answer seems to be that the writer was “a medical officer” of the Royal Navy. His article was called simply “Yokohama in 1864”, is over three pages long, and is basically a description of Yokohama at the end of 1864.
The article seems very much out of place in the BMJ because although it mentions that smallpox and cholera “sometimes commit fearful ravages” in the “native quarter” of Yokohama, it offers no other analysis or comments on the subject or any other words that might be of medical interest to BMJ readers of the day. Indeed, the writer explains his simple non-medical justification for writing the article at the beginning: “I suppose that the present state of affairs in Japan is creating some interest at home, in spite of its remoteness, in spite of the very small number of people who know anything or care anything about the country. Acting on this supposition, I propose to give you some account of Yokohama, the chief foreign settlement in Dai Nippon.”
The article shows that the writer, whose name is not given, is clearly very knowledgeable about Japan and he is fairly well acquainted with the Japanese language.
Who could the writer be?
One strong candidate is Frederick Victor Dickins (1838 – 1915). Dickens was an assistant surgeon first on HMS Coromandel which visited Yokohama with him on board in 1863. He then spent the next three years in charge of the navy’s sick quarters there. Dickins went on to be a prominent barrister in Yokohama and then back in Britain worked for the University of London. He published many translations of Japanese literary texts.
The discovery of this important reference to early rugby in Japan is a good example of the benefits of digitalization. No doubt many other unusual discoveries are being made in the BMJ archives thanks to the ease of rapidly searching through larges volumes of data for words like “football” made possible by digitalization.
- There was no sport called rugby football until the game based on the laws created by the Rugby Football Union established in 1871 became popular. Those laws were largely based on the rules of football played in Rugby School. Until that time and even afterwards there was no universal rules for the sport of football and each school or club often created its own rules. The football played in Japan by the Yokohama Foot Ball Club was based more or less on the form of football played in Rugby School and schools like Cheltenham College and Marlborough College who adopted Rugby School-type rules.
© Mike Galbraith 2016 firstname.lastname@example.org
Mike Galbraith, the son of two GPs practicing near Henley in Arden, Warwickshire, was educated at Warwick School and Durham University. He has lived, worked, and played in Japan for over 30 years and is currently a freelance writer specializing in the early history of western sports in Japan. He is the historian of the Yokohama Country and Athletic Club (YC&AC), Japan’s oldest club for western sports.