Japan is presently hosting a spectacular Rugby World Cup. The Brave Blossoms have only recently emerged as a force on the international rugby scene, so rugby fans may be surprised to learn that the sport has been played in Japan for more than 150 years.
The conventional history of rugby in Japan begins with Cambridge graduates Edward Bramwell Clarke and Tanaka Ginnosuke “introducing” the sport to students at Keio University in 1899. Two years later, in December 1901, a match was played between the university side and Yokohama Cricket & Athletic Club (YC&AC), this being the first recorded match of rugby played by a Japanese team.
The role played by YC&AC in the development of the sport prior to Keio’s involvement had heretofore been lost to history — to fire, earthquakes and war, or buried in irretrievable contemporary news sources.
The opening of the Yokohama Archives of History in 1981 opened a door for historians to discover the true story. Bit by bit over the last ten years, in research published monthly in the YC&AC magazine, sports historian Mike Galbraith has rewritten the early history of rugby in Japan.
The discovery in the Yokohama Archives of a newspaper article reporting the foundation of the Yokohama Foot Ball Club helped Galbraith to pull the threads together.
The foundation meeting of the Yokohama Foot Ball Club was held at 2 p.m. on Friday, January 26th in the Racquet Court Bungalow at No. 127 in present-day Chinatown. The edition of the Japan Times (no connection with the present Japan Times) published on the same day carried the report and had the following editorial comment.
More than forty 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.) There will be no difficulty getting a 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. 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 see no reason why this fine, healthful game should not be played as well in Yokohama as in Yorkshire.
Reports of “football” matches (the term “rugby” for the sport was not used widely until the Rugby Football Union was established in 1871) being played in Yokohama are numerous in the years following. One famous illustration, published in Britain’s The Graphic and America’s Harper’s Weekly in April and May 1874, even shows a football match being played in Yokohama under a YFBC flag.
In 1884, the YFBC merged with the baseball, athletics, tennis and cricket clubs in Yokohama to form the multi-sport Yokohama Cricket and Athletic Club (now the Yokohama Country and Athletic Club), meaning the YC&AC’s rugby team today is one of perhaps the ten oldest “open” rugby teams in the world.
“When you consider that the YFBC was founded in Edo-period Japan during the age of the shogun less than seven years after the first non-Japanese was permitted to reside in the country (outside of Dejima),” says Galbraith, “it is not only YC&AC’s documentary evidence that is difficult to beat. Can any other club in the world match the extraordinary circumstances surrounding its establishment?”
The historical evidence as to the true origins of rugby in Japan accumulated by Galbraith over the last decade has been recognized by the World Rugby Museum in Twickenham, London, as irrefutable, and on September 5, 2019, two weeks before the start of the Rugby World Cup, officials from Kanagawa Prefecture, Yokohama City, the Japan Rugby Football Union and other authorities came together in Yokohama’s Chinatown to celebrate the birthplace of rugby in Japan.
Alex Hendy, The Japan Journal
Acknowledgements: Mike Galbraith, YC&AC, Yokohama Archives of History