Tokugawa Iemochi (徳川 家茂)


Japan’s YC&AC rugby club, founded in the turbulent last days of the ferocious samurai and the Tokugawa shoguns, was the first rugby club established in Asia and is one of the very oldest in the world.

At 2 pm on January 26 2016 the Yokohama Country and Athletic Club (YC&AC) in Yokohama, Japan and its rugby section joined a very small elite group of ‘open’ rugby clubs worldwide on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Yokohama Foot Ball Club (YFBC) at a meeting held in the Racquet Court Bungalow in what is now Yokohama’s China Town.

“As of August 2015, to the best of our knowledge, the oldest verified rugby football club in Asia is that formed in Yokohama, Japan in 1866,” wrote Phil McGowan, historian working for the RFU World Rugby Museum in Twickenham Stadium.

If the numerous schools and universities where football was played, like Dublin University Football Club, are excluded because the players were mostly if not completely limited to young men actually studying in the institution, the group of 150 clubs in the world becomes very few – barely a handful: Blackheath FC, Sale FC, Richmond FC, and Wimbledon RFC (originally called Wimbledon Hornets FC.). Liverpool St Helens FC’s claim to be older than the above, after absorbing Liverpool FC (founded in 1857) in 1986, is also generally recognized.

All the above-mentioned teams were founded in the British Isles as the sport that is now called Rugby Union was just starting to become popular outside of schools and universities and so, at first sight, it seems astonishing that one should be established in Yokohama, Japan so early in the history of rugby.

“More than 40 names have been put down as willing to support a Foot ball Club and a meeting to arrange ways and means will be held we are told this afternoon (Friday 26th inst.)” stated the editorial in the Japan Times published later that day with a separate news item describing what happened. The editor, Charles Rickerby, is mentioned in the news article as seconding the proposed to make Mr. Monk the honorary secretary. The editorial had more background information about the club’s founding and indicated the confidence of the founders: “There will be no difficulty in getting ground to play upon and as we happen to have two or three Rugby and Winchester men in the Community, that we may be certain that we shall have really good scientific play.”

The writer even addresses the most controversial aspects of the form of football the club planned to play – the rules that led to the start of association football in 1863: “It has been objected that it is difficult for men to play the game with temper and without serious accident. We deny both positions. The game is played a good deal in the north of England by men and though we are inclined to think that “hacking” should be interdicted, we se no reason why otherwise this very fine, healthful game should not be played as well in Yokohama as in Yorkshire.”

The sport played in Yorkshire and Yokohama might have been similar or even the same, but the world in Yorkshire and that in Yokohama were very very different. It is astonishing, if not almost unbelievable, that a football club could have been established in Yokohama less than six years after Japan was first opened up to non-Japanese in mid-1859 ending a period of over 200 years of ‘sakoku’ (of being a country closed to foreigners).

Main Street of Yokohama (from the Bluff) circa 1865
Main Street of Yokohama (from the Bluff) circa 1865

The early foreign residents of Yokohama were generally enchanted by the cleanliness and friendliness of most of the Japanese people and the beauty of their country but they had been also experiencing hostility, threats and acts of violence by activists and anti-Shogunate samurai who supported the ‘sonno joi’ (‘revere the emperor and expel the foreigners’) movement. By early 1863, for example, the situation had become so bad following the murder of Charles Lennox Richardson in September 1862 when he and his riding party rode into the path of the Daimyo procession proceeding in the opposite direction at Namamugi near Yokohama – in what was called the Namamugi Incident – that the British charge d’affaires in Yokohama, Edward St. John Neale, urged all British citizens to evacuate to Shanghai. Neale’s move followed the issuing of an order in the shogun’s name stating that any non-Japanese still in Japan after a certain date in June would be killed. There were also plans to evacuate all the foreign residents of Yokohama onto ships in the port.

The shogun who ruled Japan in these difficult rebellious times was the youthful 14th shogun Tokugawa Iemochi who in 1863, accompanied by 3,000 retainers, made the first visit by a shogun to the Imperial capital Kyoto in 230 years in order to persuade the Emperor Komei to rescind the “expel the foreigners” decree but ended up having to agree to it. He even married into the Emperor’s family in an attempt to try to bridge the gulf between those supporting the restoration of the Emperor to power and those still supporting the shogun. Poor Iemochi was caught between a rock and a hard place with things seemingly getting worse year by year. In 1866 there were more urban riots and peasant uprisings than in any other year in the history of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the 20-year old shogun died in Osaka castle at the end of August after launching the disastrous second Choshu Expedition against the well-armed forces of the powerful Chosu and Satsuma Daimyo (Lords).

In the 1860s foot ball was a sport that generally required two teams of 20 players who ideally youngish adult men of athletic disposition and that is the significance of the number “forty” mentioned in the Japan Times’ editorial. Although Yokohama was the biggest foreign settlement in Japan, it was very small compared with Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore let alone the major cities in India and other British colonies, and its history was the shortest.

So why did Yokohama, Japan become the location of the first rugby club in Asia when it only had a few hundred foreign civilian residents? There were three main reasons:

One was the temperate climate during winter in the Yokohama area of Japan. Places like Singapore and Hong Kong experience much hotter weather all the year round. The second was luck that no one decided to found a rugby club in any of the other major cities in Asia. Shanghai was one place that could have started a club before Yokohama and it actually did so in 1867, one year after the club in Yokohama was formed.

The third and most important reason was the fact that, following the Namamugi Incident, around 1,500 soldiers and marines were stationed on the Bluff above Yokohama starting in 1864 to protect the foreign resident from attack. Many of the officers of the 20th regiment were keen on sports including football.

Capt. Charles G. Rochfort with members of XXth Reg. Band
Capt. Charles G. Rochfort with
members of XXth Reg. Band

Two of those officers were involved in the founding of the YFBC and elected to the committee to come up with the club rules for playing football. The heavily-built 29-year old Captain Charles Gustavus Rochfort is recorded in the Cheltenham College register as being in the school’s ‘Classical Football XX’ while the smaller but the more fleet-footed  Captain Robert Martin Blount went to Downside School.

Capt. Robert Blount (on right) was small in stature but very fast.
   Capt. Robert Blount (on right) was                small in stature but very fast.

The other key military figure at the meeting was Lieutenant Lord Walter Talbot Kerr (1839 – 1927) who was serving on HMS Princess Royal. He was the 4th son of the 7th Marquess of Lothian and went on to become First Naval Lord, the most senior figure in the Royal Navy. He was educated at Radley College and would have played football there.

From author's collection
From author’s collection

The man who most likely managed the meeting was William Henry Smith (1838 – 1884) who was also well-known in China and Japan as Public Spirited Smith (PSS). In 1866 he was perhaps the most popular and prominent figure in Yokohama and was involved in nearly every initiative in the town. His leadership in the meeting is indicated by the fact that he is the first person to propose a motion – the motion that a “Committee be appointed to form the rules of the Club.” He was educated at Marlborough College, before joining the Royal Marines Light Infantry (RMLI). Since the football played at Marlborough College was a form of Rugby School’s football, he may well have influenced the decision regarding which rules to play. Smith was sent to Japan as head of the Legation Guard and Escort but resigned his commission in November 1865.

William Henry Smith
William Henry Smith

One indication of the dangers that lurked in the background when the YFBC was founded was the fact that only 14 months before the new club was founded, two fellow officers of Rochfort and Blount in the 20th regiment were slashed to death while trying to visit the Great Buddha in Kamakura.

Thanks to this substantial military garrison and careful scrutiny and everyone entering or leaving the town, the foreign residents of Yokohama in 1866 were not really worried about being attacked.

RA, XXth Regt. & 67th Regt. on the Parade Ground where early football matches were played.
RA, XXth Regt. & 67th Regt. on the Parade Ground where early football matches were played.

Things were very different in 1863 and especially just before the deadline decreed by the shogun for foreigners to safely leave Japan. The only UK military were a few hundred Royal Marines stationed on warships in the harbour who sometimes sent patrols into the town. When business in the town stopped and the Japanese residents fled the town en masse, the few foreigners left must have wondered whether they were going to survive. Then someone had a great idea for ensuring that the marines would be on shore on the fateful day by issuing a challenge to the Royal Navy to play a cricket match against the Shore team. Even though the ground was ringed by Royal Marines, many of the players still decided to have guns close at hand. The wicket-keeper, for example, lay his gun behind the stumps near where he stood during each over.

Not only was this the first game of cricket played in Japan but it was also the first recorded evidence of football being played in Japan because 20-year old Lieutenant Harry Rawson who later became a famous admiral and governor of New South Wales, at least once said publicly that “a remarkable feature of the game was that half the players were playing football.” Like W. H. Smith, who also played cricket and possibly football that day, Rawson was an alumnus of Marlborough College.

1863 cricket - Navy Team Half the players also played football Rawson sits right of front row
                                                 1863 cricket – Navy Team
                                        Half the players also played football
                                    Rawson sits with bat on right of front row

In this remarkable manner the British sports of football and cricket were first played in Japan – a bizarre byproduct of the ‘sonno joi’ movement’s efforts  to overthrow the Tokugawa shogunate.

1863 cricket -Shore Team Half the player also played football WH Smith sits right on right
                                                                1863 cricket -Shore Team
                                                      Half the player also played football
                                                             W. H. Smith sits front right


© Mike Galbraith 2016

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